In April 2018, Facebook sent the Yale cardiologist and researcher Freddy Abnousi on a strictly confidential assignment to liaise with medical groups across the country on behalf of Building 8, Facebook’s experimental research team. Building 8—which had originally been led by Regina Dugan, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—worked on long-term, moonshot projects, such as developing devices that would allow people to type with their brain or hear through their skin.
Abnousi’s task was less radical: He was to get the Stanford University School of Medicine and the American College of Cardiology on board with a new project that would combine Facebook user information with hospital-patient data in order to influence patient outcomes. Facebook hoped it could leverage the cache of data users already give it—about their education, relationships, habits, spoken languages, employment status, and more, all of which have an enormous impact on health outcomes—to create a sort of subclinical health-care system, warning providers if, for example, a user recovering from surgery had a small support group.
Then came the Cambridge Analytica debacle, and with it a cascade of highly public inquiries and privacy revelations that resulted in the cessation of Building 8. But Facebook kept working on a version of its health-care project. In October, Abnousi, now the company’s head of health-care research, announced Facebook Preventive Health, rolling out to some U.S. users this month as a feature in the Facebook mobile app.