Delicate well being info donated for medical analysis by half 1,000,000 UK residents has been shared with insurance coverage corporations regardless of a pledge that it might not be.
An Observer investigation has discovered that UK Biobank opened up its huge biomedical database to insurance coverage sector companies a number of occasions between 2020 and 2023. The information was offered to insurance coverage consultancy and tech companies for tasks to create digital instruments that assist insurers predict an individual’s threat of getting a continual illness. The findings have raised considerations amongst geneticists, knowledge privateness consultants and campaigners over vetting and moral checks at Biobank.
Arrange in 2006 to assist researchers investigating ailments, the database accommodates tens of millions of blood, saliva and urine samples, collected recurrently from about 500,000 grownup volunteers – together with medical information, scans, wearable system knowledge and life-style info.
Permitted researchers world wide will pay £3,000 to £9,000 to entry information starting from medical historical past and life-style info to entire genome sequencing knowledge. The ensuing analysis has yielded main medical discoveries and led to Biobank being thought-about a “jewel within the crown” of British science.
Biobank stated it strictly guarded entry to its knowledge, solely permitting entry by bona fide researchers for health-related tasks within the public curiosity. It stated this included researchers of all stripes, whether or not employed by tutorial, charitable or industrial organisations – together with insurance coverage corporations – and that “details about knowledge sharing was clearly got down to members on the level of recruitment and the preliminary evaluation”.
However proof gathered by the Observer suggests Biobank didn’t explicitly inform members it might share knowledge with insurance coverage corporations – and made a number of public commitments not to take action.
When the venture was introduced, in 2002, Biobank promised that knowledge wouldn’t be given to insurance coverage corporations after considerations have been raised that it may very well be utilized in a discriminatory approach, corresponding to by the exclusion of individuals with a selected genetic make-up from insurance coverage.
In an FAQ part on the Biobank web site, members have been informed: “Insurance coverage corporations is not going to be allowed entry to any particular person outcomes nor will they be allowed entry to anonymised knowledge.” The assertion remained on-line till February 2006, throughout which period the Biobank venture was topic to public scrutiny and mentioned in parliament.
The promise was additionally reiterated in a number of public statements by backers of Biobank, who stated safeguards could be in-built to make sure that “no insurance coverage firm or police drive or employer can have entry”.
This weekend, Biobank stated the pledge – made repeatedly over 4 years – not utilized. It stated the dedication had been made earlier than recruitment formally started in 2007 and that when Biobank volunteers enrolled they got revised info.
This included leaflets and consent varieties that contained a provision that anonymised Biobank knowledge may very well be shared with non-public companies for “health-related” analysis, however didn’t explicitly point out insurance coverage companies or right the earlier assurances.
Biobank additionally stated commitments that “insurance coverage corporations … is not going to be given any particular person’s info, samples or take a look at outcomes” – repeated in leaflets over a 17-year interval – meant to discuss with identifiable info, corresponding to that which is linked to an individual’s title, slightly than to different knowledge about Biobank members.
The precise nature of the info shared with the insurance coverage trade shouldn’t be clear as a result of Biobank doesn’t routinely publish this and has declined to date to say. Summaries of the tasks revealed on-line recommend it included de-identified, participant-level knowledge on ailments, life-style and biomarkers.
One firm granted entry, ReMark Worldwide, is a “international insurance coverage consultancy” that underwrites 1,000,000 insurance policies a 12 months and lists shoppers together with Authorized & Common and MetLife. In its utility to Biobank, authorized in December 2022, the corporate stated it wanted knowledge to develop an algorithm to foretell ailments and loss of life, utilizing hospital information and smartwatch knowledge to look at the connection between life-style, psychological well being and biomarkers.
One other agency given Biobank knowledge, Lydia.ai, is a Canadian “insurtech” agency that wishes to offer folks “personalised and predictive well being scores”. The corporate says insurers work with it to “leverage new sources of knowledge to make threat predictions”. It was granted entry to Biobank knowledge in January for a venture linking well being information to life-style knowledge to “predict continual ailments”.
Membership Vita, a “longevity knowledge analytics firm for pension funds & their advisors, insurers, reinsurers and asset managers” – whose shoppers embody 400 pension funds and 25 insurers – was additionally granted entry. Its venture sought to evaluate knowledge on morbidity outcomes utilizing a spread of threat elements corresponding to gender, ailments, therapy, location and life-style.
Prof Yves Moreau, a genetics and AI knowledgeable who has labored on tasks utilizing knowledge from UK Biobank, stated the data-sharing gave the impression to be a “critical and disturbing breach of belief”. He stated the concept Biobank’s public commitments may very well be “silently outmoded” by leaflets was “weak”, and questioned whether or not members understood that knowledge may very well be shared with insurance coverage companies. “The information seems to be very mundane – a bunch of measurements. However there are actually main impacts,” he stated.
Prof Sandra Wachter, an knowledgeable in know-how and regulation on the Oxford Web Institute, stated the circumstances risked eroding the belief of volunteers who “donated their knowledge for an excellent trigger”. She stated the event of insurance coverage merchandise to “predict if somebody will get sick” raised critical moral considerations.
Sam Smith, coordinator of medConfidential, which campaigns for the privateness of well being knowledge, stated folks gave knowledge to Biobank to “assist remedy ailments”, not so it may very well be utilized by the insurance coverage trade. He stated: “Biobank should inform each participant what knowledge was shared with insurance coverage corporations and why.”
Biobank stated it rejected any suggestion that knowledge had ever been shared for makes use of that volunteers had not consented to, and stated it was unsuitable to recommend that prior guarantees – which pre-dated formal enrolment at Biobank – ought to nonetheless apply.
It added that researchers labored for “all method of corporations”, and that offered they handed its “stringent entry protocols”, they might conduct analysis utilizing Biobank knowledge. Analysis by insurance coverage corporations into how life-style behaviours can enhance well being or assist determine well being dangers was “per being health-related and within the public curiosity”, it stated. It added that it had consulted impartial ethicists “at size” about industrial knowledge sharing, and that “complicated” functions have been referred to an knowledgeable committee.
Prof Naomi Allen, chief scientist at UK Biobank, stated: “Our cautious processes have been adopted in all these circumstances. De-identified well being knowledge has been shared as a result of these are bona fide researchers engaged on health-related analysis, together with what impacts human well being and longevity – and that’s what our members signed as much as assist with.”
There isn’t a suggestion that Biobank knowledge has ever been utilized by insurers to make direct choices about particular person insurance policies. No bodily organic samples have been shared.
In addition to insurance coverage sector companies, Biobank knowledge has additionally been given to different corporations that aren’t straight health-related, together with pension funds and funding companies, venture information present.
In one other case that has raised questions for Biobank, a California firm whose web site is roofed in spelling errors was granted entry to knowledge. Flying Troika LLC’s web site says it’s a “pure analysis lab” providing “deep larning” options in sectors together with insurance coverage, pharma, manufacturing and retail. It says it has groups in 13 cities, together with “Maimi” and Edinburgh. The corporate is known to have sought genetic knowledge, MRI scans and different info in April 2021, to develop a “novel AI mannequin” that may predict ageing processes.
Prof David Leslie, director of ethics and accountable innovation on the Alan Turing Institute, stated: “Making specific … simply how every of those tasks counted as knowledge getting used for medical tasks within the public curiosity would appear important for sustaining public belief.”
The Data Commissioner’s Workplace, the UK’s knowledge privateness watchdog, is contemplating the matter. It stated: “Folks have the suitable to count on that organisations will deal with their info securely and that it’s going to solely be used for the aim they’re informed or conform to. Organisations should present clear, correct and complete info … particularly the place delicate private info is concerned.”