John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?  Competitive Web & SEO
February 21st, 2008 by john andrews

Google’s Microsoft Health Vault

When Microsoft announced Microsoft Health Vault, for storing and retrieiving sensitive personal health records over the public Internet, I commented with “Microsoft is first out of the gate announcing Health Vault, an online personal health information database of Google proportions.” Now that Google has regained its composure in the health database area, it is testing a Google version of Health Vault in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic.

Reportedly, this new sensitive medical data will be yet another aspect of the standard Google account. The same Google account that they use for tracking analytics, advertising spend (for those who advertise), ad consumption (for those who click ads), online video watching (for those who use YouTube), email (for those on GMail), saving whatever you search for on the Internet for practically forever, and so much more (“so much more” referring to DoubleClick data, library data being archived by Google, news wires, government records, etc).

Yes, the very same Google accounts which have been compromised by security holes in the very recent past (remember when we learned that others could read our GMail accounts?) will now be used to store and access your sensitive medical records. Hey, it works for YouTube, so why not your genetic screening test results?

This is under test with the Cleveland Clinic. Tests, of course, of how well it can make money for Google and the Cleveland Clinic. Oh sure the testing involves some safety issues, but the kind like “did any patients get hurt by errors?” (because that would create liability), and “did anything get seriously, obviously mucked up?” (ecause that would be ambrasssing). I doubt very much it is a test of real security or feasibility of exposing the records to International hackers via the Internet… youknow the people who sit back in their repaired Aeron chairs over in the-regions-recently-bombed-to-hell and try just about anything possible to access social security numbers, bank account data, or sensitive information that can be sold for currency.

Our commercial deployers of technology still insist on trying to promise security, while ignoring the obvious, known problems (storing encryption keys on local hardware(PDF)) and trying to convince us they are more innovative than everyone else (not).

If Google wants to test the feasibility of this Google Health Vault, they should put up billboards around the world saying “Solve this puzzle and get a job at Google”, and then challenge the worlds “brightest minds” to find a way in to that sensitive health data. Go ahead, Google. I triple dog dare ya!

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October 18th, 2007 by john andrews

Google Health Platform

Following Microsoft’s Health Vault, Google has announced that the Google Health Initiative at the Web Summit. As allof us involved with search already know, Google reminds us:

Google is already the starting point for a large majority of the health-related searches on the Web

Now we also hear that Googleis moving into local health commerce with “find a doctor” features:

Google has developed a prototype online platform for its health offering that incorporates personal medical records, health care-related search features, diet and exercise regimens, a localized “find a doctor” application, and other elements, Mayer confirmed. The company has shown the prototype to unspecified partners and is having both Google employees and “trusted testers” beta-test the system.

Google’s Mayer says that Google will help make sure you see even less of your doctor, as Google efficiencies help reduce the number of minutes a doctor has to provide to each patient:

“The goal for a lot of doctors is how many patients can they see in a day,” Mayer said. “That means their minutes per patient has got to go down, and the less time they have to spend finding and going over patient records the better. Ultimately we will design a product that’s useful for users, and also helps doctors do their job more quickly and more efficiently.”

Contrast this report to Microsoft’s Health Vault reporting, which was all about medical records, databases, and privacy. Where Microsoft announced the Health Vault to the world of medical consumers,it seems Google is going after industry support. No surprise there, eh?


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October 4th, 2007 by john andrews

HealthVault (Microsoft Health Vault)

Microsoft is first out of the gate announcing Health Vault, an online personal health information database of Google proportions. We can expect everyone to go after that gold mine, because such a database represents the single most profitable social media endeavor imaginable. Google will eventually build a health database. Yahoo! will probably try and add “your medical records” to MyYahoo! some day. This is scary, scary stuff, but it’s almost inevitable. People are willing to give away just about everything these days for a free email account, so I guess I can’t blame Microsoft for going after the Holy Grail of online databases with the Health Vault initiative.

Health Vault : Can it be Secure?

In a word, no. As everyone in technology already knows, whatever is connected to the Internet will be exposed to prying eyes. The credit card companies know this, the hackers know this, the information brokers and their customers know this, and the government (including the military) knows this. They have security systems in place specifically because they know nothing is secure on the web. Those security systems involve watching the hackers as they penetrate and look around, and tricking the hackers with fake servers full of fake data (honeypots). Millions and millions of social security records have been compromised every year for the past few years. In addition to this more obvious fact (that health Vault won’t be secure), this health Vault is from Microsoft – arguably not a prime example of companies doing well with software security (based on our experiences with Windows and other Microsoft products’ security).

Health Vault and Privacy

This one is easy. What people don’t know, won’t hurt them. Privacy is to be “user-managed” with Health Vault. That’s the short story – it’s left up to YOU what you expose via your privacy settings. The longer story is unknown, but it seems pretty obvious that this approach is an excellent way to get as much access as possible to people’s data before they know what they are giving away, or how they can change their own privacy “controls”.

Hint to the hackers: where there is trust, there is an exploit. As soon as there is a “privacy control” it becomes a target (like a lock becomes the target once placed on a door). If someone resets your “privacy controls” without your knowledge, how soon will you notice?

Health Vault: Why is it so Valuable?

You will hear about the obvious benefits of a centralized health database because that makes for good press and is supported by marketing dollars. You will hear about the crazy conspiracy stuff because it makes for good press. You won’t hear about the real deal, some of which I know from my back ground as a biomedical engineer and clinical researcher. The real deal is that personalized medicine is the most promising advance in health care coming down the pipe, and personalized medicine is based on genetics and intimidate knowledge of individual data like health history and medical records. Some day soon we will be able to do a genetic screen in minutes, and determine accurate probabilities of your future health. We can already check on many disease states using hair and saliva samples, or possibly skin flakes you might leave behind at the coffee shop, hair salon, or hotel bathroom. Without a court order or any permission, someone can follow you, pick up a that frappucino straw you threw in the trash and test it for various diseases. What can they do with such knowledge about you?

They can set your medical insurance rates, for one thing. They can deny you a job if they see you will get real expensive in the benefits department before the expected retirement age. They can run your DNA against a centralized paternity database, just to see if maybe somewhere in the past you perhaps unknowingly fathered a child that is now 16 years old and in need of college funds or 30 years old an recently un-incarcerated for sociopathy. Think about the potential of a Web 2.0 Social Media community site for adopted or otherwise fatherless/motherless individuals… tell your story, speak of your memories, and try to connect with your “real” family. Monetized via a paternity database… “send in your hair sample and we’ll check across 200 million medical records… all voluntarily submitted”. I bet that would be wildly successful. Or how about affinity groups like “people likely to get ALS before they are 35″ or “Preparing for Alzheimer’s” or even better a Mensa-like “Perfect People – Meet other genetically Perfect People Here” monetized via the mandatory DNA screen and Health Vault database inspection.

They can craft custom medications designed to work for YOU specifically, based on your own health profile. What would the profit margins be on such personalized medicines? I guess another way to ask that would be, how much would YOU pay for a medicine that could save YOUR life? Exactly.

Health Vault: Why should you care?

Well you may know enough not to participate in Heaqlth Vault, but who among us has not felt the pressures of social change involving risky technologies like unencrypted email? The vast majority of Internet email is still today sent around the world in clear text, stored all over the place, and yet nobody seems to care. Have you ever been asked for your credit card information and decided it was better to call it in? And after you placed your order by phone, did you get an email confirmation that showed most or all of your name, address, phone number, and credit card information? Sent over that Internet, in clear text (readable form), accessible to many, many otherwise unprivileged eyes and likely stored in multiple locations outside of your control.

Back office people send stuff by clear text (unencrypted email) all the time, in violation of policies and procedures and probably privacy and credit card laws, but nobody cares because it keeps commerce moving. The more momentum “the system” has the harder it is to resist participating. The more people accept Health Vault, the more health systems will require it, perhaps even using it via back office operations without your overt knowledge. If you have ever worked in IT or IS, I know you believe me. If you have ever been without a drivers license, how did you manage to “show ID” as you seem to have to all the time these days? I imagine the line for “people not in Health Vault” would be quite a bit longer than the line for “regular people”.

Health Vault. Should be good some day, but right now, I think this is pretty scary stuff.


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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John




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