Health data is emerging as a key battleground in the global fight to control the vast amounts of potentially sensitive information needed to develop new artificial intelligence technologies.
The French government made that clear last week, when it said it wanted to move control of an effort to centralize the country’s health data project away from the American tech giant Microsoft and into the hands of a French or European platform.
Health data is also at the center of a debate about a proposed takeover by Google of the wearable health tech company FitBit. The acquisition is currently being scrutinized by the European Commission.
The attention to health data underscores the increasing politicization of questions about who owns private information about European consumers, after the European Court of Justice struck down a framework for sharing data between the European Union and the United States known as the Privacy Shield.
It also comes as governments around the world race to develop new artificial intelligence technology — and grapple with how to regulate it. The EU is set to present rules on AI early next year, and must confront a risk inherent to rule-making: making regulation that quickly becomes obsolete.
As a national representative told a recent POLITICO roundtable discussion, referring to the rules: “What is a good rule today, may not be relevant for tomorrow’s problems.”
Data Hub hubbub
Until recently, Paris had entrusted its health data project to Microsoft. Launched in March 2019, the Health Data Hub was designed to centralize data from France’s vast health system and optimize it for use by researchers.
But on October 8, France’s junior digital minister, Cédric O, said he wanted to shift the health data held by the Seattle-based tech giant onto French or European platforms.
“We are working with [Health Minister] Olivier Véran, after the thunderous cancellation of the Privacy Shield, to transfer the Health Data Hub to French or European platforms,” Cédric O told a Senate hearing.
A day later, local media reported that France’s data protection regulator, the CNIL, had sought a court order to stop the Microsoft project.
In its submission to the court, the CNIL pointed to the EU court ruling from July, saying France should avoid parking data with companies that are likely to be subject to U.S. snooping laws.
“The most effective solution is to entrust data storage to companies that are not subject to United States law,” the regulator’s submission reads.
Microsoft has responded by saying the French health data is physically stored in Europe in accordance with France’s Health Data Hosting certification and the General Data Protection Regulation.
France’s Council of State court said on Wednesday the contract with Microsoft should not be suspended.
But the U.S. company’s pleas come against a backdrop of increasingly protectionist rhetoric around European data and tech, especially from France.
Google’s interest in Fitbit has also attracted criticism over concerns that it would undermine the privacy of European citizens.
In September, 17 top competition economists — including Tommaso Valleti, Thibaud Vergé and Gregory Crawford, former chief economists of the EU’s competition department, the French competition authority and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission — called on the Commission to block the merger.
“Blocking the merger does not solve all problems related to health data, but it avoids amplifying already existing problems,” the economists wrote.
Tracing app spat
Apps designed to track and trace coronavirus contacts are another case in point.
While many EU countries adopted a model created by Google