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Facebook wants to collect profile information and patient data from hospitals for research project

Facebook wants several major U.S. hospitals to share data about their patients for a proposed research project. But the recent Cambridge Analytica data scandal has put the Facebook project on hold. (mactrunk/Getty Images)

Facebook wants several major U.S. hospitals to share data about their patients — including illnesses and prescription information — for a proposed research project.

How would this work?

Under the plan, a computer program would match hospital data with data collected from Facebook profiles, CNBC reported. Facebook claims the data would be collected through a cryptographic technique called hashing. The technique could match information from Facebook and a hospital, while obscuring personally-identifiable information, such as a patient's name.

In turn, the data would supposedly be used to help hospitals decide if certain patients might need special care or treatment, according to the report.

For example, Facebook would use profile information to determine if a patient is isolated and lacks a support system. If so, a hospital employee could check in on that person following a major surgery.

According to the report, the data could compare, for example, “what a health system knows about its patients (such as: person has heart disease, is age 50, takes 2 medications and made 3 trips to the hospital this year) with what Facebook knows (such as: user is age 50, married with 3 kids, English isn't a primary language, actively engages with the community by sending a lot of messages).”

Sources that provided information about the proposal to CNBC asked to remain anonymous because of confidentiality agreements.

Is the project moving forward?

The project was in the planning stages but is now on hold in light of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, CNBC reported.

Recent news stories reveal how Cambridge Analytica allegedly misused social media data from as many as 87 million Facebook users.

The data was reportedly used for political marketing for the Trump campaign, as well as other political elections in other parts of the world, according to published reports. Some of the seedier allegations include company executives telling clients they could use prostitutes and bribery to discredit their political rivals.

What about medical privacy laws?

Facebook's plans to collect medical data raises concerns about laws that protect patient privacy and patient consent, analysts told CNBC.

When asked about the medical research plan, Facebook provided the following statement to CNBC:

"The medical industry has long understood that there are general health benefits to having a close-knit circle of family and friends. But deeper research into this link is needed to help medical professionals develop specific treatment and intervention plans that take social connection into account."

"With this in mind, last year Facebook began discussions with leading medical institutions, including the American College of Cardiology and the Stanford University School of Medicine, to explore whether scientific research using anonymized Facebook data could help the medical community advance our understanding in this area. This work has not progressed past the planning phase, and we have not received, shared, or analyzed anyone's data."

"Last month we decided that we should pause these discussions so we can focus on other important work, including doing a better job of protecting people's data and being clearer with them about how that data is used in our products and services."

Another Facebook "research experiment" in 2014 manipulated the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to see if certain types of content would impact people's moods. The social media giant later apologized for the experiment.

One last thing…
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