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BigBro1Strange as it may seem, I read an interesting news story this past week. Strange? That I read? Or that I read interesting stories?

But be that as it may, there is a startup company that is developing a means for early detection of certain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Just by listening to someone’s voice. That’s cool. Or is it?

According to NewScientist.com, the company, Canary Speech, reports that it’s working with an undisclosed U.S. health insurer to use its proprietary algorithms to analyze hundreds of millions of calls to the insurer from its insureds. Using the callers’ medical history and demographic background, Canary looks for subtle vocal cues that might indicate symptoms of certain neurological conditions. For example, says Canary, a softness of speech resulting from a lack of coordination over the vocal muscles might be one such cue.

Ethically applied with a patient’s informed consent, I find this evolving technology to be tremendously exciting and promising. But in the manner Canary is going about this with the unidentified insurer?

I don’t know about you, but my experience is that U.S. health insurers generally bend over backwards to protect patient privacy and confidentiality. You’ve heard of HIPPA, right? No, not that big cuddly cousin of an elephant found in Africa documentaries and many of our favorite zoos. I’m talking about the Health Insurance Portability Act of 1996, enacted to protect patient data privacy and security.

Often when I’ve called my health insurer or health provider to get some of my own information, I’m told that HIPPA prevents that, even when there is no doubt that I’ve validated beyond question that I’m who I say I am. You know, my name, my address, my mother’s maiden name, my favorite sports team, my first pet, my first car. This is utter nonsense! I’m the one protected by HIPPA. Certainly I can waive my own protection. However, this shows you just how bureaucratic the bureaucrats are.

So, then, don’t you find it odd that this mysterious insurer is providing all this HIPPA protected data to some third party without first documenting the prior written knowledge and consent of the patient insured? I do. And it’s no wonder that Canary is not divulging who this insurer is.

To be clear, the data being revealed is not of an insured calling its insurer to discuss one of these possible ailments, suggesting at least a weak claim of waiver. When I want my own data, I’m told I can’t waive my own HIPPA rights. But an insured discussing a possible ailment with his or her insurer can?

The current Canary situation is a hundred times worse. A thousand times worse. This is an insured who may be calling just to question a bill the insured has received. He or she is not remotely discussing a possible ailment, and waiving any related privacy. Yet, unknowingly, that insured’s private data addressing a possible illness (that may or may not be correct!) is being shared with a third party, Canary.

Think about the ramifications of this. What if Canary shares its conclusions about these hundreds of millions of insureds with just this one insurer? What if that insurer then uses such conclusions to influence its insurance premiums imposed on those insureds, or outright denial of their coverage?

When asked about this prospect, Canary answered “Oh, that would be regulated.”

How does that answer work for you? It doesn’t work at all for me.


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