Google states now includes the “confidential, personal medical records of private people” in the bracket of information it may remove unprompted from search results. Other examples of information that can be removed this way, includes national or government issued identification numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers and images of signatures.
The leaking of private medical records can be extremely damaging to the victims, both financially and emotionally, with future prospects affected and private lives of the vulnerable exposed. Google’s indexing system captures anything that’s publicly accessible on the internet. That makes leaks like the one created by an Indian pathology lab – which uploaded over 43,000 patient records in December 2016, including names and HIV blood test results – particularly damaging.
Change in approach
The last change to the removal policy was made in 2015, adding ‘nude or sexually explicit images that were uploaded or shared without your consent’, in order to cover so-called revenge porn. According to The Guardian, the new addition to Google’s scrubbing policy marks a change from the search company’s traditional hands-off, algorithmic approach which resists attempts at censorship. This has come under scrutiny over the last few years due to the spread of fake news and misinformation. Google recently adjusted its search results to down-rank contested information such as fake news.
Though Google effectively covers only some 4 percent of the entire internet, for many people its search engine has become their de facto online window on the world. This means that removal from the company’s search results effectively scrubs these results from the internet.
While the information will still be accessible via other search engines or directly, other associated actions including the European right to be forgotten have seen being removed from Google’s search results as good enough to affect change.