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!
Posts filed under 'Politics
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.
Tim Kelsey made a number of misleading claims. He claimed for example that in 25 years there had never been a single case of patient confidentiality compromise because of the HES data kept centrally on all hospital treatments. This was untrue. A GP practice manager, Helen Wilkinson, was stigmatised as an alcoholic on HES because of a coding error. She had to get her MP to call a debate in Parliament to get this fixed (and even after the minister promised it had been fixed, it hadn’t been; that took months more pushing).
Second, when Tim pressed Phil for a single case where data had been compromised, Phil said “Gordon Brown”. Kelsey’s rebuttal was “That was criminal hacking.” Again, this was untrue; Gordon Brown’s information was accessed by Andrew Jamieson, a doctor in Dunfermline, who abused his authorised access to the system. He was not prosecuted because this was not in the public interest. Yeah, right. And now Kelsey is going to give your GP records not just to almost everyone in the NHS but to university researchers (I have been offered access though I’m not even a medic and despite the fact that academics have lost millions of records in the past), to drug firms like GlaxoSmithKline, and even to Silicon-Valley informatics companies such as 23andme.
The next three weeks will see a leaflet drop on over 20 million households. NHS England plans to start uploading your GP records in March or April to a central system, from which they will be sold to a wide range of medical and other research organisations. European data-protection and human-rights laws demand that we be able to opt out of such things, so the Information Commissioner has told the NHS to inform you of your right to opt out.
Needless to say, their official leaflet is designed to cause as few people to opt out as possible. It should really have been drafted like this. (There’s a copy of the official leaflet at the MedConfidential.org website.) But even if it had been, the process still won’t meet the consent requirements of human-rights law as it won’t be sent to every patient. One of your housemates could throw it away as junk before you see it, and if you’ve opted out of junk mail you won’t get a leaflet at all.
Yet if you don’t opt out in the next few weeks your data will be uploaded to central systems and you will not be able to get it deleted, ever. If you don’t opt out your kids in the next few weeks the same will happen to their data, and they will not be able to get their data deleted even if they decide they prefer privacy once they come of age. If you opted out of the Summary Care Record in 2009, that doesn’t count; despite a ministerial assurance to the contrary, you now need to opt out all over again. For further information see the website of GP Neil Bhatia (who drafted our more truthful leaflet) and previous LBT posts on medical privacy.
We had a crypto festival in London in London in November at which a number of cryptographers and crypto policy folks got together with over 1000 mostly young attendees to talk about what might be done in response to the Snowden revelations.
Here is a video of the session in which I spoke. The first speaker was Annie Machon (at 02.35) talking of her experience of life on the run from MI5, and on what we might do to protect journalists’ sources in the future. I’m at 23.55 talking about what’s changed for governments, corporates, researchers and others. Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch follows at 45.45 talking on what can be done in terms of practical politics; it turned out that only two of us in the auditorium had met our MPs over the Comms Data Bill. The final speaker, Smari McCarthy, comes on at 56.45, calling for lots more encryption. The audience discussion starts at 1:12:00.
Your medical records are now officially on sale. American drug companies now learn that MedRed BT Health Cloud will provide public access to 50 million de-identified patient records from UK.
David Cameron announced in 2011 that every NHS patient would be a research patient, with their records opened up to private healthcare firms. He promised that our records would be anonymised and we’d have a right to opt out. I pointed out that anonymisation doesn’t work very well (as did the Royal Society) but the Information Commissioner predictably went along with the charade (and lobbyists are busy fixing up the new data protection regulation in Brussels to leave huge loopholes for health service management and research). The government duly started to compel the upload of GP data, to join the hospital data it already has. During the launch of a medical confidentiality campaign the health secretary promised to respect existing opt-outs but has now reneged on his promise.
The data being put online by BT appear to be the data it already manages from the Secondary Uses Service, which is mostly populated by records of finished consultant episodes from hospitals. These are pseudonymised by removing names and addresses but still have patient postcodes and dates of birth; patient views on this were ignored. I wonder if US purchasers will get these data items? I also wonder whether patients will be able to opt out of SUS? Campaigners have sent freedom of information requests to hundreds of hospitals to find out; so we should know soon enough.
Yesterday the heads of “MI5″, “MI6″ and GCHQ appeared before the Intelligence Security Committee of Parliament. The uncorrected transcript of their evidence is now online (or you can watch the video).
One of the questions fielded by Andrew Parker (“MI5″) was how many terrorist plots there had been over the past ten years. According to the uncorrected transcript (and this accords with listening to the video — question starts at 34:40) he said:
I think the number since… if I go back to 2005, rather than ten years… 7/7 is that there have been 34 plots towards terrorism that have been disrupted in this country, at all sizes and stages. I have referred publicly and previously, and my predecessors have, to the fact that one or two of those were major plots aimed at mass casualty that have been attempted each year. Of that 34, most of them, the vast majority, have been disrupted by active detection and intervention by the Agencies and the police. One or two of them, a small number, have failed because they just failed. The plans did not come together. But the vast majority by intervention.
I understand that to mean 34 plots over 8 years most but not all of which were disrupted, rather than just discovered. Of these, one or two per year were aimed at causing mass casualties (that’s 8 to 16 of them). I find it really quite surprising that such a rough guess of 8 to 16 major plots was not remarked upon by the Committee — but then they were being pretty soft generally in what they asked about.
The journalists who covered the story heard this all slightly differently, both as to how many plots were foiled by the agencies and how many were aimed at causing mass casualties!
Britain has just been hit by a storm; two people have been killed by falling trees, and one swept out to sea. The rail network is in chaos and over 100,000 homes lost electric power. What can security engineering teach about such events?
Risk communication could be very much better. The storm had been forecast for several days but the instructions and advice from authority have almost all been framed in vague and general terms. Our research on browser warnings shows that people mostly ignore vague warnings (“Warning – visiting this web site may harm your computer!”) but pay much more attention to concrete ones (such as “The site you are about to visit has been confirmed to contain software that poses a significant risk to you, with no tangible benefit. It would try to infect your computer with malware designed to steal your bank account and credit card details in order to defraud you”). In fact, making warnings more concrete is the only thing that works here – nudge favourites such as appealing to social norms, or authority, or even putting a cartoon face on the page to activate social cognition, don’t seem to have a significant effect in this context.
So how should the Met Office and the emergency services deal with the next storm?
August was a slow month, but we got a legal case where our client was accused of tampering with a curfew tag, and I was asked for an expert report on the evidence presented by Serco, the curfew tagging contractor. Many offenders in the UK are released early (or escape prison altogether) on condition that they stay at home from 8pm to 8am and wear an ankle bracelet so their compliance can be monitored. These curfew tags have been used for fourteen years now but are controversial for various reasons; but with the prisons full and 17,500 people on tag at any one time, the objective of policy is to improve the system rather than abolish it.
In this spirit I offer a redacted version of my expert report which may give some insight into the frailty of the system. The logs relating to my defendant’s case showed large numbers of false alarms; some of these had good explanations (such as power cuts) but many didn’t. The overall impression is of an unreliable technology surrounded by chaotic procedures. Of policy concern too is that the tagging contractor not only supplies the tags and the back-end systems, but the call centre and the interface to the court system. What’s more, if you break your curfew, it isn’t the Crown Prosecution Service that takes you before the magistrates, but the contractor – relying on expert evidence from one of its subcontractors. Such closed systems are notoriously vulnerable to groupthink. Anyway, we asked the court for access not just to the tag in the case, but a complete set of tagging equipment for testing, plus system specifications, false alarm statistics and audit reports. The contractor promptly replied that “although we continue to feel that the defendant is in breach of the order, our attention has been drawn to a number of factors that would allow me to properly discontinue proceedings in the public interest.”
The report is published with the consent of my client and her solicitor. Long-time readers of this blog may recall similarities with the case of Jane Badger. If you’re designing systems on whose output someone may have to rely in court, you’d better think hard about how they’ll stand up to hostile review.
Privacy activists have complained for years that the Information Commissioner is useless, and compared him with captured regulators like the FSA and the Financial Ombudsman. However I’ve come across a paper by a well-known anthropologist that gives a different take on the problem.
Alan Fiske did fieldwork among a tribe in northern Nigeria that has different boundaries for which activities are regulated by communal sharing, authority, tit-for-tat or monetary exchange. For example,labour within the village is always communal; you expect your neighbours to help you fix your house, and you later help them fix theirs. (This exasperated colonialists who couldn’t get the locals to work for cash; the locals for their part imagined that Europeans must present their children with an itemised bill for child-rearing when they reached adulthood.) He has since written several papers on how many of the tensions in human society arise on the boundaries of these domains of sharing, authority, tit-for-tat and the market. The boundaries can vary by culture, by generation and by politics; libertarians are happy to buy and sell organs for transplant, where many people prefer communal sharing, while radical socialists object to some routine market transactions. Indeed regulatory preferences may drive political views.
So far so good. Where it gets interesting is his extensive discussion of taboo transactions across a variety of cultures, and the institutions created to mitigate the discomfort that people feel when something affects more than one sphere of regulation: from extreme cases such as selling a child into slavery so you can feed your other children, through bride-price and blood money, to such everyday things as alimony and deconsecrating a cemetery for development. It turns out there’s a hierarchy of spheres, with sharing generally taking precedence over authority and authority over tit-for-tat, and market pricing following along last. This ordering makes “downhill” transactions easier. Alimony works (you once loved me, so pay me money!) but buying love doesn’t. (more…)