The Listening Post

AI and our health data: A pandemic threat to our privacy

The coronavirus pandemic gives big tech firms a chance to access the holy grail of datasets – medical records.

On The Listening Post this week: The pandemic gives big tech firms a chance to access the holy grail of datasets – your medical records. Plus, science journalists and their sources.

AI and our health data: A pandemic threat to our privacy

Put yourself in the shoes of the NHS, the United Kingdom’s tax-payer funded public health service. You treat about a million patients every 36 hours and that is pre-pandemic. The amount of health data you are now churning out is enormous – and you want to harness that data in the fight against COVID-19.

So you turn to the private sector and get technology companies to help you do that. Seems to make sense, but here is the issue: Companies with chequered histories over data handling start landing those contracts. And, to date, the British government has refused to disclose the contractual terms.

Information does not get any more personal than your health data. And, in the midst of this pandemic, the British public has been left in the dark on where that data is going – and what these companies and the government might be able to do with it, down the road.


Mona Sloane – fellow, Institute for Public Knowledge, NYU
Cori Crider – director, Foxglove
Phil Booth – co-ordinator, MedConfidential
Bryan Glick – editor-in-chief, Computer Weekly

On our radar: 

Richard Gizbert speaks to producer Johanna Hoes about local television stations in the United States filing the exact same story on the world’s largest retailer, Amazon and its handling of COVID-19 in the workplace – plus the major media players in Brazil who are boycotting Bolsonaro’s briefings.

Science journalism in the spotlight

For months now, journalists around the world have been on a crash course in reporting on medical science. They had no experience in covering a pandemic and we have documented some of the shortcomings in their reporting. Now we are turning to journalists with some actual credentials in this field: Science and health reporters. In many cases, they were the first to recognise the dangers of the outbreak in Wuhan, leaving the rest of us to play catch up. Historically underappreciated, and usually underrepresented in newsrooms, science and health reporters now find their expertise is in demand. But their rise to prominence has been accompanied by a new level of scrutiny in the kind of work they do. And their critics are coming out of the woodwork. The Listening Post‘s Flo Phillips talks to three science journalists about the highs – and lows – of covering the COVID-19 pandemic.


Helen Branswell – senior infectious disease reporter, STAT News
Kai Kupferschmidt – contributing correspondent, Science Magazine
Vidya Krishnan – health and science journalist