Latest health privacy scandal

Today I gave a talk at the Open Data Institute on a catastrophic failure of anonymity in medical research. Here’s the audio and video, and here are the slides.

Three weeks ago we made a formal complaint to the ICO about the Department of Health supplying a large amount of data to PA Consulting, who uploaded it to the Google cloud in defiance of NHS regulations on sending data abroad. This follows several other scandals over NHS chiefs claiming that hospital episode statistics data are anonymous and selling it to third parties, when it is nothing of the kind.

Yesterday the Department of Health disclosed its Register of Approved Data Releases which shows that many organisations in both the public and private sectors have been supplied with HES data over the past year. It’s amazing how many of them are marked “non sensitive”: even number 408, where Imperial College got data with the with HESID (which includes postcode or NHS number), date of birth, home address, and GP practice. How officials can maintain that such data does not identify individuals is beyond me.

8 comments April 4th, 2014 at 20:14 UTC

Current state of anonymous email usability

As part of another project, I needed to demonstrate how the various user-interface options for sending anonymous email through Mixmaster appeared to the email sender. This is very difficult to explain in words, so I recorded some screencasts. The tools I used were the Mixmaster command line tool, the Mutt email client with Mixmaster plugin, QuickSilver Lite, and finally a web-based interface.

The project is now over, but in case these screencasts are of wider interest, I’ve put them on YouTube.

Overall, the usability of Mixmaster is not great. All of the secure options are difficult to configure and use (QuickSilver Lite is probably the best), emails take a long time to be sent, recipients of anonymous email can’t send replies, and there is a high chance that the email will be dropped en-route.

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6 comments April 3rd, 2014 at 06:09 UTC

Health privacy: complaint to ICO

Three NGOs have lodged a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner about the fact that PA Consulting uploaded over a decade of UK hospital records to a US-based cloud service. This appears to have involved serious breaches of the UK Data Protection Act 1998 and of multiple NHS regulations about the security of personal health information. This already caused a row in Parliament and the Deparatment of Health seems to be trying to wriggle off the hook by pretending that the data were pseudonymised. Other EU countries have banned such uploads. Regular LBT readers will know that the Department of Health has got itself in a complete mess over medical record privacy.

4 comments March 14th, 2014 at 15:14 UTC

Hardware Scrambling – No More Password Leaks

The main reason for passwords appearing in headlines are large password breaches. What about being able to fearlessly publish scrambled passwords as they are stored on servers and still keep passwords hidden even if they were “123456″, “password”, or “iloveyou”.

13 comments March 7th, 2014 at 14:57 UTC

Ghosts of Banking Past

Bank names are so tricksy — they all have similar words in them… and so it’s common to see phishing feeds with slightly the wrong brand identified as being impersonated.

However, this story is about how something the way around has happened, in that AnonGhost, a hacker group, believe that they’ve defaced “Yorkshire Bank, one of the largest United Kingdom bank” and there’s some boasting about this to be found at http://www.p0ison.com/ybs-bank-got-hacked-by-team-anonghost/.

However, it rather looks to me as if they’ve hacked an imitation bank instead! A rather less glorious exploit from the point of view of potential admirers.
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Add comment March 5th, 2014 at 23:52 UTC

Financial cryptography 2014

I will be trying to liveblog Financial Cryptography 2014. I just gave a keynote talk entitled “EMV – Why Payment Systems Fail” summarising our last decade’s research on what goes wrong with Chip and PIN. There will be a paper on this out in a few months; meanwhile here’s the slides and here’s our page of papers on bank security.

The sessions of refereed papers will be blogged in comments to this post.

17 comments March 3rd, 2014 at 15:15 UTC

Health privacy: not fixed yet

by Ross Anderson in Uncategorized

I have written a letter to Stephen Dorrell, the chair of the Health Committee, to point out how officials appear to have misled his committee when they gave evidence there on Tuesday.

It is very welcome that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced he will change the law to ban the sale of our medical records collected via HES and care.data. He acted after it became clear that although officials told the Health Committee that our records collected via care.data could not legally be sold, records collected via a different system (HES) already had been. But that is not all.

Officials also said our records would not be sold abroad, and that only coded data would be extracted rather than free text entered by GPs during consultations. Yet our records were offered for sale in the USA; the Department signed a memorandum of understanding with the USA on data sharing; and CPRD (a system operated by MHRA, the regulator) has been supplying free text for mining.

I also sent Mr Dorrell a previously unpublished briefing I wrote for the European Commission last year on the potential harm that can follow if patients lose confidence in confidentiality. Evidence from the USA and elsewhere suggests strongly that tens of thousands of people would seek treatment late, or not at all.

8 comments March 2nd, 2014 at 15:27 UTC

Research Assistants and Associates in OS, Compiler and CPU Security

We are pleased to announce a job ad for two new research assistants or post-doctoral research associates working on our CTSRD Project, whose target research areas include OS, compiler, and CPU security. This is a joint project between the University of Cambridge’s Security, NetOS, and Computer Architecture research groups, as well as the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International.

Research Assistants and Associates in OS, Compiler and CPU Security
Fixed-term: The funds for this post are available for 18 months in the first instance.

We are seeking multiple Research Assistants and Post-Doctoral Research Associates to join the CTSRD Project, which is investigating fundamental improvements to CPU-architecture, operating-system (OS), program-analysis, and programming-language structure in support of computer security. The CTSRD Project is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and SRI International, and part of the DARPA CRASH research programme on clean-slate computer system design for security. More information may be found at:

This position will be an integral part of an international team of researchers spanning multiple institutions in academia and industry. Successful candidates will contribute to the larger research effort by performing system-software, compiler, and hardware implementation and experimentation, developing and evaluating novel hypotheses about refinements to the vertical hardware-software stack. Possible areas of responsibility include: modifying OS kernels (e.g., FreeBSD), adapting compiler suites (e.g., Clang/LLVM); extending an open-source Bluespec-based research-processor design (CHERI); supporting an early-adopter user community for open-source hardware and software; and improving the quality and performance of hardware-software prototypes. The successful candidate must be willing to travel in the UK and abroad engaging with downstream user communities.
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Add comment February 26th, 2014 at 13:32 UTC

WEIS 2014: last call for papers

Next year’s Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS 2014) will be at Penn State on June 23–24. Submissions are due a week from today, at the end of February. It will be fascinating to see what effects the Snowden revelations will have on the community’s thinking. Get writing!

2 comments February 21st, 2014 at 14:03 UTC

NHS opt out: not what it seems

On January 23rd we had a conference call with the NHS Information Centre and a couple of its software suppliers about anonymisation. LBT readers will have followed how your GP records are to uploaded to the new central database care.data for resale unless you opt out. Any previous opt outs from other central systems like SCR will be disregarded (even if you wrote saying you opted out of all central systems), along with opt-outs from regional systems.

We’d been told that if you opted out afresh your data would be uploaded only in anonymised, aggregated form; after all the Prime Minister promised. But I persisted. How will the NHS work out doctors’ bonuses in respect of opted-out patients? Doctors get extra payments for meeting targets, such as ensuring that diabetic patients get eye tests; these used to be claimed by practice managers but are now to be worked out centrally. If the surgery just uploads “We have N patients opted out and their diagnostic codes are R1, R2, R3, …” then officials might have to give doctors the benefit of the doubt in bonus calculations.

It turned out that officials were still dithering. The four PC software vendors met them on January 22nd and asked for the business logic so they could code up the extraction, but officials could not make up their minds whether to respect the Prime Minister’s promise (and human-rights law) or to support the bonus calculation. So here we had a major national programme being rolled out next month, and still without a stable specification!

Now the decision has been taken. If you opt out, all your clinical data will be uploaded as a single record, but with your name, date of birth and postcode removed. The government will simply pretend this is anonymous, even though they well know it is not. This is clearly unlawful. Our advice is to opt out anyway while we lobby ministers to get their officials under control, deliver on Cameron’s promise and obey the law.

28 comments February 8th, 2014 at 11:12 UTC


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