Back to News Front

Why does Google want your tissue?

Inside Google’s fight to digitize service member’s tissue samples

A medical laboratory technician examines a slide under a microscope inside the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio Medical Center, April, 28, 2021. Photo credit: Wesley Farnsworth, Air Force

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

In an article published this month by ProPublica and reprinted in, Google has promoted a plan to digitize, through the use of its AI business, the Joint Pathology Center's (JPC) collection of millions of pathology slides containing samples of skin, tumor biopsies and organs from armed service members and veterans.

The JPC's archives hold more than 31 million blocks of human tissue and 55 million slides. Google's plan to gather details about this information has and continues to draw resistance from JPC's leaders.

Current JPC director Col. Joel Moncur has warned Department of Defense lawyers that Google's plan "could cause a breach of patient privacy and could lead to a scandal that adversely affects the military."

According to, Google has told military officials that the JPC collection holds the "raw materials" for the most revolutionary biotechnological breakthrough of this decade.

"Enormous quantities of medical data are needed to design algorithmic models that can identify patterns a pathologist might miss - and Google and other companies are in a race to gather them," wrote James Blander for ProPublica. "Only a handful of tech companies have the scale to scan, store and analyze a collection of this magnitude on their own."

As the most aggressive company, Google continues to press the JPC to grant it access to its stored data.

"We had hoped to enable the JPC to digitize its data and, with its permission, develop computer models that would enable researchers and clinicians to improve diagnosis for cancers and other illnesses," Ted Ladd, a Google spokesperson, told ProPublica.

As points out, the JPC needs help from tech companies in order to preserve its collections of various samples. The organization is underfunded by Congress and neglected by the Pentagon; it is vulnerable to offers from well-funded rescuers like Google.

Google had offered to start the process by training algorithms with already digitized data in the repository, and it has said it will conduct the work in a manner that takes into consideration "privacy and ethical considerations," continued

In March of 2020, the Defense Innovation Board, an independent advisory board created in 2016 to introduce the technological innovations of Silicon Valley to the military, announced recommendations to digitize the JPC collection. JPC hired several AI experts in ethics to develop guidelines, and in 2021 selected John Hopkins to assist in the work.

Google persisted; in 2021 it appealed directly to the Pentagon and Congress. "The physical slides at the JPC are degrading rapidly each day. ... Without further action, the slides will continue to degrade and some may ultimately be damaged beyond repair," said Google officials.

The House Armed Services Committee expressed concern about the speed of the scanning and decided to include language in the 2023 Defense Authorization Act to use an augmented reality microscope whose software was engineered by Google.

The matter remains unresolved. But at the 2021 South by Southwest Conference, Steven French, the DoD cloud computing engineer assisting the JPC, paraphrased William Shakespeare when he said, "There's plenty of vendors, plenty of companies, plenty of people who are more than willing to do this and extract a pound of flesh from us in the process."

Read next close

Jobs & Education

New scholarship season opens

comments powered by Disqus