I’m at the launch in London of the new campaign for medical privacy, MedConfidential.org. Sam Smith and I will be liveblogging the day’s events in comments below. For background, see here, here, here and here. Most of today’s audience are from groups for whom medical privacy is particularly important, such as charities dealing with rape victims, substance abuse, sexual health and child wefare.
Posts filed under 'Politics
Those of us who love America and have many friends there were delighted at President Obama’s initial reaction to the Boston bombings. He said if whoever attacked the city sought to intimidate victims or shake American values, “it should be pretty clear by now that they picked the wrong city to do it.” It seemed that sanity had at last returned, after all the scaremongering of the “War on terror”, and the ghost of 9/11 was finally being laid to rest.
One day later, a million people were under virtual house arrest; the 19-year-old fugitive from justice happened to be a Muslim. Whatever happened to the doctrine that infringements of one liberty to protect another should be necessary and proportionate?
In the London bombings, four idiots killed themselves in the first incident with a few dozen bystanders, but the second four failed and ran for it when their bombs didn’t go off. It didn’t occur to anyone to lock down London. They were eventually tracked down and arrested, together with their support team. Digital forensics played a big role; the last bomber to be caught left the country and changed his SIM, but not his IMEI. It’s next to impossible for anyone to escape nowadays if the authorities try hard.
Last weekend, my wife and I were in Milton Keynes where we bought a cradle as a present for our new granddaughter. They had only the demo model in the shop, but sold us one to pick up from their store in Cambridge. So yesterday I went into John Lewis with the receipt, to be told by the official that as I couldn’t show the card with which the purchase was made, they needed photo-id. I told him that along with over a million others I’d resisted the previous government’s ID card proposals, the last government had lost the election, and I didn’t carry ID on principle. The response was the usual nonsense: that I should have read the terms and conditions (but when I studied the receipt later it said nothing about ID) and that he was just doing his job (but John Lewis prides itself on being employee-owned, so in theory at least he is a partner in the firm). I won’t be shopping there again anytime soon.
We get harassed more and more by security theatre, by snooping and by bullying. What’s the best way to push back? Why can businesses be so pointlessly annoying?
Perhaps John Lewis are consciously pro-Labour given their history as a co-op; but it’s not prudent to advertise that in a three-way marginal like Cambridge, let alone in the leafy southern suburbs where they make most of their money. Or perhaps it’s just incompetence. When my wife phoned later to complain, the customer services people apologised and said we should have been told when we bought the thing that we’d need to show ID. She offered to post the cradle to our daughter, but then rung back later to say they’d lost the order and would need our paperwork. So that’s another 30-mile round-trip to their depot. But if they’re incompetent, why should I trust them enough to buy their food?
I invite the chairman, Charlie Mayfield, to explain by means of a follow-up to this post whether this was policy or cockup. Will he continue to demand photo-id even from customers who have a principled objection? Will he tell us who in the firm imposed this policy, and show us the training material that was prepared to ensure that counter staff would explain it properly to customers?
New legislation that comes into force next month will permit the upload of identifiable patient data directly from family doctors’ records to central systems, from which it will be sold and made available to researchers and private companies. Other developments include the creation of online patient records, and a proposal to create shared record systems across health and social care.
MedConfidential has been formed to deal with these multiple threats to patient privacy, and is hosting its first conference on April 24th in central London. This will be a one-day briefing session to provide details of the new policies and explain their potential impact. The conference is free of charge but places are limited. If you would like to attend, please contact Terri Dowty: firstname.lastname@example.org
The UK Government are currently in a tremendous rush to legislate (and create a Royal Charter) before the political consensus around “implementing Leveson” evaporates. Their proposals catch not just the print media, but also online publications. That’s only proper — a newspaper should meet the same integrity standards for their journalism whether it appears in ink and paper, or on their website.
However, the Governments approach has not been to describe the activity that they wish to regulate, but to describe the various media involved and then try to write exceptions to avoid regulating the whole Internet. Those exceptions are poorly thought out and will have all sorts of unintended consequences. They might even include this blog!
Last week I spoke at a conference on digital health at the Scottish parliament. The talks are now online; my talk is here, and my slides here. At present, medical records in Scotland are organised differently under its fourteen different health boards, with wide variations in privacy, safety and functionality. Needless to say, officials in Edinburgh see this as an opportunity for centralisation; they want to follow the sad story in England. The political dynamic north of the border is much the same: officials want to grab all the data, GPs are not keen, but the public’s not paying attention.
If you’re interested in these issues, save April 24th in your diary; there will be a big medical privacy event in London organised by a number of NGOs.
Yesterday the European Commission launched its new draft directive on cybersecurity, on a webpage which omits a negative Opinion of the Impact Assessment Board. This directive had already been widely leaked, and I wrote about it in an EDRi Enditorial. There are at least two serious problems with it.
The first is that it will oblige Member States to set up single “competent authorities” for technical expertise, international liasion, security breach reporting and CERT functions. In the UK, these functions are distributed across GCHQ, MI5/CPNI, the new NCA, the ICO and various private-sector bodies. And the UK is relatively centralised; in Germany, for example, there’s a constitutional separation between police and intelligence functions. Centralisation will not just damage the separation of powers essential in any democracy, but will also harm operational effectiveness. Most of our critical infrastructure is in the hands of foreign companies, from O2 through EDF to Google; moving cybersecurity cooperation from the current loose association of private-public partnerships to a centralised, classified system will make it harder for most of them to play.
Second, whereas security-breach notification laws in the USA require firms to report breaches to affected citizens, articles 14 and 15 instead require breach notification to the “competent authority”. Notification requirements can be changed later by order (14.5-7) and the “competent authorities” only have to tell us if they determine it’s in the “public interest” (14.4). So instead of empowering us, it will empower the spooks. But that’s not all. Member States must “ensure that the competent authorities have the power to require market operators and public administrations to: (a) provide information needed to assess the security of their networks and information systems, including documented security policies; and (b) undergo a security audit carried out by a qualified independent body or national authority and make the results thereof available to the competent authority” (15.2). States must also “ensure that competent authorities have the power to issue binding instructions to market operators and public administrations” (15.3) Now as Parliament has just criticised the Home Office’s attempt to take powers to order firms like Google and Facebook to disclose user data by means of the Communications Data Bill, I hope everyone will think long and hard about the implications of passing this Directive as it stands. It’s yet another unfortunate step towards the militarisation of cyberspace.
The government has once again returned to the vision of giving each of us an electronic health record shared throughout the NHS. This is about the fourth time in twenty years yet its ferocity has taken doctors by surprise.
Seventeen years ago, I was advising the BMA on safety and privacy, and we explained patiently why this was a bad idea. The next government went ahead anyway, which led predictably to the disaster of NPfIT. Nonetheless enough central systems were got working to seriously undermine privacy. Colleagues and I wrote the Database State report on the dangers of such systems; its was adopted as Lib Dem policy and aspects were adopted by the Conservatives too. That did lead to the abandonment of the ContactPoint children’s database but there was a rapid u-turn on health privacy after the election.
The big pharma lobbyists got their way after they got health IT lobbyist Tim Kelsey appointed as Cameron’s privacy tsar and it’s all been downhill from there. The minister says we have an opt-out; but no-one seems to have told him that under GPs will in future be compelled to upload a lot of information about us through a system called GPES if they want to be paid (they had an opt-out but it’s being withdrawn from April). And you can’t even register under a false name any more unless you use a stolen passport.
This afternoon, the Information Commissioner will unveil a code of practice for data anonymisation. His office is under pressure; as I described back in August, Big Pharma wants all our medical records and has persuaded the Prime Minister it should have access so long as our names and addresses are removed. The theory is that a scientist doing research into cardiology (for example) could have access to the anonymised records of all heart patients.
The ICO’s blog suggests that he will consider data to be anonymous and thus no longer private if they cannot be reidentified by reference to any other data already in the public domain. But this is trickier than you might think. For example, Tim Gowers just revealed on his excellent blog that he had an ablation procedure for atrial fibrillation a couple of weeks ago. So if our researcher can search for all males aged 45-54 who had such a procedure on November 6th 2012 he can pull Tim’s record, including everything that Tim intended to keep private. Even with a central cardiology register, it’s hard to think of a practical mechanism could block Tim’s record as soon as he made that blog post. But now researchers are starting to carry round millions of people’s records on their laptops, protecting privacy is getting really hard.
In his role as data protection regulator, the Commissioner has been eager to disregard the risk of re-identification from private information. Yet Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information has pointed out to me that he regularly applies a very different rule in Freedom of Information cases, including one involving the University of Cambridge. There, he refused a freedom of information request about university dismissals on the grounds that “friends, former colleagues, or acquaintances of a dismissed person may, through their contact with that person, know something of the circumstances of that person’s departure” (see para 30).
So I will be curious to see this afternoon whether the Commissioner places greater value on the consistency of his legal rulings, or their convenience to the powerful.
Last time I flew through Luton airport it was a Sunday morning, and I went up to screening with a copy of the Sunday Times in my hand; it’s non-metallic after all. The guard by the portal asked me to put it in the tray with my bag and jacket, and I did so. But when the tray came out, the newspaper wasn’t there. I approached the guard and complained. He tried to dismiss me but I was politely insistent. He spoke to the lady sitting at the screen; she picked up something with a guilty look sideways at me, and a few seconds later my paper came down the rollers. As I left the screening area, there were two woman police constables, and I wondered whether I should report the attempted theft of a newspaper. As my flight was leaving in less than an hour, I walked on by. But who will screen the screeners?
This morning I once more flew through Luton, and I started to suspect it wouldn’t be the airport’s management. This time the guard took exception to the size of the clear plastic bag holding my toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant, showing me with glee that it has half a centimetre wider than the official outline on a card he had right to hand. I should mention that I was using a Sainsbury’s freezer bag, a standard item in our kitchen which we’ve used for travel for years. No matter; the guard gleefully ordered me to buy an approved one for a pound from a slot machine placed conveniently beside the belt. (And we thought Ryanair’s threat to charge us a pound to use the loo was just a marketing gimmick.) But what sort of signal do you give to low-wage security staff if the airport merely sees security as an excuse to shake down the public? And after I got through to the lounge and tried to go online, I found that the old Openzone service (which charged by the minute) is no longer on offer; instead Luton Airport now demands five pounds for an hour’s access. So I’m writing this blog post from Amsterdam, and next time I’ll probably fly from Stansted.
Perhaps one of these days I’ll write a paper on “Why Security Usability is Hard”. Meanwhile, if anyone reading this is near Amsterdam on Monday, may I recommend the Amderdam Privacy Conference? Many interesting people will be talking about the ways in which governments bother us. (I’m talking about how the UK government is trying to nobble the Data Protection Regulation in order to undermine health privacy.)