Health Data , Railways and the Moon

July 28, 2009

I have quite a lot of time for David Davis. Not only is he a genuine champion of civil liberties but he has real experience of life beyond the rich and protected sphere in which leading politicians exist. So I was delighted when I saw his piece in Monday’s Times about personal data and privacy – pleased to see a major national paper giving such prominence to a debate on issues that I associate with IT lawyers and other tight groups. At least I think that was what the David Davis article was supposed to be about. It spends so much time Google bashing that any hope of it sparking sensible debate was lost ‘My party would be mad to give control of sensitive records to an internet giant notorious for ignoring privacy concerns’. You get the picture. In fact there is some thoughtful stuff there about health data. But it is hard to find. Sure enough, Tuesday’s paper featured one comment – from Peter Fleischer, the Global Privacy Counsel to Google. The issue had become one of whether Google was a baddy or the Dr Barnado of the Internet, our guardian against swine flu and reliever of tsunami victims.

To be fair to Peter Fleischer, he’s got a job to do, and he closed with a paragraph about it being ‘a good thing that there is a robust debate between and within political parties about …how patients can be given more control over their personal data’, but that was not a debate he sought to move forward. Sadly the agenda had been set by the ‘I wouldn’t trust Google’ headline of the original piece.

I think the first real question which needs to be debated on this topic is whether personal health data is really suitable material for commercial organisations to guard at all. I am reminded of the belief that the old British Rail was useless and that commercial companies could run the railways much more effectively. Now there are considerable calls for a recognition that railways are peculiar and really need to be run by government, especially given the level of government subsidy that they enjoy.

I have no idea what the answer is on railways but my gut feeling is that health data is best left in government hands.

Partly this is because I genuinely believe that the level of data misuse and leakage in the public sector is no worse than that in the private sector. I suspect that the apparent differences are to do with transparency, accountability and reporting rather than actual performance; this tends to be highlighted when a private sector component in government data handling is the source of the ‘leak’ but the leak is ascribed to government incompetence.

I do not really think that the commercial incentives to maintain data securely are quite as compelling as David Davis suggests in his article but I do accept that they are very real. One problem though is that when things do go wrong it is no real consolation to see share prices sink or companies go bankrupt. But my biggest problem is that, so long as we have a National Health Service and disability benefits and government of all kinds as a very large employer, most if not all of the health data of the majority of the population will be in government hands anyway and it’s not going to be destroyed. The hiving off of such data to private companies, whether in the cloud or not, is merely a duplication of data. If an individual’s right to control such data (whatever ‘control’ means in this context) is to be protected, it would need to be protected twice over.

But none of this is easy and there is a genuine need for debate. It may take a long time to resolve.

I close with another reference to The Times. On 21 July it published a lengthy editorial reviewing the issues that mattered above and beyond economic misfortunes. One it identified was the preservation of privacy in an age of computerised records. It said:
‘In meeting the various needs of the community – in health, in welfare care, in financial benefits and so forth – there can be no doubt of the advantages to be gained from comprehensive records, readily available. But the dangers of abuse, especially of the unconscious abuse that comes from the instant revelation of all an individual’s affairs to somebody who is responsible for satisfying only a particular need, are equally obvious.’

What of the reference to the moon in the title of this piece? I actually saw the editorial quoted above in the reproduction of The Times for 21 July 1969, published in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. I only note that the issues identified then remain only very partially resolved. A full resolution is one giant leap for mankind that is still awaited.