Last week the Daily Mail wrote:
Unless patients object, officials will start to extract confidential data from their files next month.
This is wrong. It’s talking about the UK government’s plans to extract all health records from our GPs and place them into a single central database which it will then sell to drug companies, insurance companies, academics and others. The Mail is wrong because it doesn’t matter whether you object or not. You cannot stop the collection and centralisation of your personal records.
All you can do is tell your GP that you do not wish to be identifiable from those records. You can do this at two levels: firstly, that you do not wish your identity to be associated with the records stored in the database; and secondly that you do not wish your identity to be associated with the records passed on to third parties (whose only possible purpose in buying this data is to increase their profits).
As far as I can gather — and remember that the government simply does not want us to understand what is going on — if requested by the patient, the system will seek to anonymise the data collected, and pseudoanonymise the data sold. How they will do this is not made clear.
Anonymisation is impossible. Big data makes it impossible. Even if every scrap of directly identifying information is removed (and I very much doubt that will happen) there is so much other data about all of us readily available that anyone with a few resources and determination will be able to identify us by collating the different bits. Drug companies and insurance companies have more than a few resources. This is not, as the government will tell us, a slight theoretical possibility, but a practical reality — and an inevitability.
As for pseudoanonymisation, that is a farce. It literally means slight anonymisation that can be reversed — and reversed it will be.
There’s another aspect. At the moment, if the police want our health records they can get them from our GPs with a warrant. They will no longer need a warrant. Backbench Tory MP David Davis asked the government (written question):
To ask the Secretary of State for Health whether any medical data will be extracted by care.data from GP-held records of patients who have objected to the use of their confidential information by others than those providing them with care.
Daniel Poulter, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, responded (written answer):
In terms of information which identifies a patient, NHS England’s “Better information means better care” leaflet sets out how people can ask their GP practice to note their objections, which will prevent confidential, identifiable data about them being used by the care.data programme, other than in a very limited number of exceptional circumstances.
As examples, existing public health legislation may require data to control the spread of specific infectious diseases or the police may require information about an individual patient when investigating serious crime. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and must balance legal requirements, the duty of confidentiality owed to the patient and the accepted public interest in a confidential health service, all against any benefits that may arise from the disclosure.
It is important to note that provisions in the Health and Social Care Act 2012 are designed to strengthen and clarify the role of the Health and Social Care Information Centre so that information can be collected, held securely and made readily available to those who need it in safe, de-identified formats, with crucial safeguards in place to protect the confidential data it holds.
The Health and Social Care Act 2012 is clear that
“information which identifies or enables identification of a person must not be published”.
Poulter’s response is as clear as mud. Note that there is no mention of opting out, merely objecting. But note also that the police ‘may require information about an individual patient’. To get to an individual means they must and can bypass all anonymisation and pseudoanonymisation instructions we give to our doctors.
This month, before March when the collection begins, I shall be doing a number of things:
- demand of my GP (in writing) that my records are collected without identifying information
- demand of my GP (in writing) that my records are not sold or given to third parties with any identifying information
- inform my GP that I forbid the uploading of any of my personal data to a central database, and invoke the European Data Protection directive in support
- write to my MP and explain my objections
- sign all and every petition I can find that objects to this government theft of my personal data (here are two: 38 degrees, and Epetitions)
Do no evil is best known today as a Google reference; but it occurs earlier in the Bible (2 Corinthians 13:7 King James):
Now I pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates.
Do as you would be done by is an immediately recognisable biblical reference (Matthew 7:12 King James):
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Google has claimed the former, but ignores the latter.
It recently removed two extensions from its Chrome webstore: Add to Feedly and Tweet this Page. This was a good thing. Although the extensions originally did what’s described on the tin, they had been bought by advertising companies of the worst sort. Those advertising companies subsequently slipped in, via automatic updates, adware engines.
Automatic updates are a double-edged sword. In the hands of a supplier you trust they can be a tremendous boon — security patches and software improvements just happen. But in the hands of a dubious firm, automatic updates are a troublesome problem. They can, and in the case of these two extensions, did covertly install all manner of things.
To get round the problem Google has changed its terms of service. In future, extensions will need to be clearly defined — the new terms state that extensions must have “a single purpose,” and be “narrow and easy-to-understand”. Adding a new function secretly, such as adware, clearly breaches these rules.
Google invoked these rules to remove the extensions. In general, however, the company says the new terms won’t be enforced widely until the summer. That implies there will then be some form of enforcement methodology — extension auditing, for example.
Again, this is a good thing. Google is saying that its users should know what the software they use actually does, and it should be easily understood, and their privacy should not be abused.
Which is more or less what the European Union is saying to Google itself. Two European data protection regulators (France and Spain) have already fined the company the maximum possible for breaking privacy laws. Four others (Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and the UK) have agreed that the privacy laws have been broken. Germany, Italy and The Netherlands are expected to levy fines. The UK is more likely to discover some weasel way to avoid fining Google (because of the UK’s traditional thrall to big business), but nevertheless holds Google in breach of the law.
Google is doing unto Europe what it won’t allow its app providers to do unto Google: confuse, break the rules and dissemble. It is clearly hoping and expecting that its sheer size will prevent Europe smacking it in the same way it smacked those that disobeyed its own rules. Here’s hoping…
Some time this month, if you live in Britain, you will receive a leaflet from the NHS. Its purpose is to persuade you that a new central database of all your health information (more or less everything your doctor knows about you, has said to you, has prescribed for you, or advised you on) held and operated by the government, is a good thing. It is not a good thing, and the leaflet does not tell you all you need to know about the database.
It is not a good thing.
Ross Anderson has provided an alternative leaflet providing more of the information that we should all be told. His leaflet provides a cut-out form that we can use to instruct our GP not to give any of our health data to the central database. We can do this. That’s the law. It’s in the Data Protection Act. If we do not do so, our health records will be uploaded automatically and we will not be able to get them removed. I suggest every Brit should read Anderson’s leaflet as well as the NHS leaflet; and I urge everyone to instruct their GP to block the upload.
Why do we need to object?
The data held will not be anonymised. It cannot be, because they want to marry our GP records with any records from hospital visits. That data will then be sold to third parties. The biggest buyers will be the pharmaceutical companies, either directly or disguised as research establishments or subcontracted to universities. By default, that data will not be anonymised.
They say we can insist on our own records being anonymised before sale. That is meaningless, irrelevant and impossible.
Raw medical records will not help in the development of new treatments or drugs. But it will help in targeting existing drugs. It will show relationships both geographically and socially between treatments and success or failure rates. It will, in short, enable the drug companies to target specific groups of patients or geographical areas with their existing drugs.
That will be the primary use of this database by the pharmaceutical companies – to locate targets and develop marketing strategies for their existing products.
Do not believe anything said to the contrary: this is what will happen.
If you are suffering from ‘shock fatigue‘ (and who isn’t?) over the never-ending revelations on the extent and degree of NSA surveillance on all of us, then I can do no better than recommend you view NSA Files: Decoded – What the revelations mean for you. It is a single document that provides an overview of what we’ve learnt so far, and is interspersed throughout with brief videos on viewpoints from both sides of the fence.
If you are American, then you should be proud of the public debate that these revelations have prompted. If you are British, you should be worried about the lack of any public debate at all.
Britain’s spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency (NSA)…
“It’s not just a US problem. The UK has a huge dog in this fight,” Snowden told the Guardian. “They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.”
Guardian, Friday 21 June 2013
But where is the public debate in the UK? It doesn’t exist.
To understand why, you have to consider the nature of the two countries. America was founded on a distrust of government (ironically, specifically the British government). Protection against government authority is built into the American Constitution. And to this day, Americans instinctively distrust big government.
Britain is different. Its democracy has grown slowly and peacefully over a thousand years. Brits instinctively believe that their government is good; Brits instinctively trust big government.
The result of Snowden’s revelations is that both governments are trying to justify their surveillance practices; but while the American government is on the defensive, the British government is decidedly offensive.
Meanwhile, in Britain, prime minister David Cameron accused the Guardian of damaging national security by publishing the revelations, warning that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.
NSA Files: Decoded
Meanwhile, in Britain, government agents forced the physical destruction of the Guardian disks containing Snowden files:
The intelligence men stood over Johnson and Blishen [Guardian staff] as they went to work on the hard drives and memory chips with angle grinders and drills, pointing out the critical points on circuit boards to attack. They took pictures as the debris was swept up but took nothing away.
NSA files: why the Guardian in London destroyed hard drives of leaked files
Meanwhile, in Britain, Glen Greenwald’s boyfriend David Miranda was detained at Heathrow for 9 hours and had his computer equipment confiscated because he was suspected of being a terrorist:
At the time I said that all the police had to do was justify the suspicion that Miranda was a terrorist as defined in the Terrorism Act; which would be easy.
Britain: the Miranda detention proves it is a police state in action
Meanwhile, in Britain, an emergency debate in Parliament did not discuss GCHQ overreach, but instead discussed the Guardian’s support for terrorists:
This debate, however, focuses on a narrower and darker issue: the responsibility of the editors of The Guardian for stepping beyond any reasonable definition of journalism into copying, trafficking and distributing files on British intelligence and GCHQ. That information not only endangers our national security but may identify personnel currently working in our intelligence services, risking their lives and those of their families.
Parliamentary debate: National Security (The Guardian)
Incidentally, Paul Flynn (a Labour MP) attempted a ‘point of order':
On a point of order, Mr Caton. You are the guardian of the reputation of this debate, and so far it has demeaned Parliament’s reputation, because we have had two speeches that were written and read with no attempt to engage us in debate. This is McCarthyite scaremongering that disgraces Parliament.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the government’s pet poodle paper (The Daily Mail, if you hadn’t guessed) attacked the Guardian:
Stupendous arrogance: By risking lives, I say again, the Guardian is floundering far out of its depth in realms where no newspaper should venture…
Stephen Glover, 9 October 2013
Put quite simply, the British government has very successfully managed to turn attention away from its surveillance programmes and against, instead, the newspaper that exposed it. The message is irrelevant, it suggests — it is the messenger that should be shot.
It is time, I suggest, for the British people to understand that its government cares not a jot for the British people, nor for democracy, nor freedom, nor liberty. It cares more for secrecy; and demands to be left alone to carry on unchecked. It is time for Brits to learn to distrust their government.
That’s rubbish. Google said what it said – it’s there in black and white and they all quote it. It was said by lawyers, so of course they meant what they said. And how do you take a motion to dismiss a class action out of context?
The question is not what Google said, but why it said it. OK, here’s my layman’s take.
This is big. It’s not a court case that Google can afford to lose. If it did, it could potentially jeopardise the entire business model for Gmail. And without Gmail, where is Drive?
Google almost certainly will not lose this case. But the ‘what if…’ doesn’t bare contemplating. Google has to be absolutely certain of winning. And that’s where the invocation of the ‘third-party doctrine’ comes in. It’s the nuclear option defence.
Now the three Google apologists all say, wait a minute, Google is only talking about non-Gmail plaintiffs. So? It still cites the third-party doctrine – and show me where in the Smith v. Maryland ruling it says, “this ruling only applies to non-Gmail email users.”
But Google is being more clever than this. By invoking Smith v Maryland, Google is saying to the government, if you take me down, I’m taking you down as well. The government relies too much on this doctrine in its own surveillance practices to allow it to be overturned in a case against Google. So this statement by Google is a form of insurance to make sure it doesn’t lose the case.
What Google is saying very clearly is that users do not have a legal expectation of privacy and that it has the legal right to be a right bastard. The only bit where The Next Web, The Verge and TechDirt have got it right is that Google is not saying it is or will become a right bastard – only that legally it can.
Usually I like The Next Web. But this is a bit strange. It says that news reports give the wrong weight to something Google lawyers argue in a motion to dismiss a class action. TNW’s headline is, No, Google did not say that there is no privacy in Gmail.
Excuse me? That is, conceptually, exactly what Google said — and TNW proves it by reproducing the content:
Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their communications are processed by the recipient’s ECS provider in the course of delivery. Indeed, “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743-44 (1979).
TNW misses off the legal reference, but then helpfully explains it. TNW then adds:
The same is true of email sent through an ECS provider…
So, TNW, I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong — that’s exactly what Google said, and exactly what Google meant.
Over the last few days numerous IT magazines have run a story about a surge in customers for Swiss hosting companies. For example, “Artmotion has witnessed a 45% growth in revenue amid this new demand for heightened privacy,” says Computer Weekly.
Most of these stories have come from, yes, a post-PRISM press release issued by Artmotion. “Artmotion, for example,” says the press release, “has witnessed 45 per cent growth in revenue amid this new demand for heightened privacy.”
Why are companies moving to Switzerland? Well, remember that we now live in post-Snowden enlightenment. “The desire for data privacy has therefore seen a surge in large corporations turning to Switzerland to take advantage of its privacy culture. Enterprises can host data in Switzerland clouds without fear of it being accessed by foreign governments,” says Computer Weekly.
“The desire for data privacy has therefore seen a surge in large corporations turning to ‘Silicon’ Switzerland to take advantage of the country’s renowned privacy culture. Here they can host data without fear of it being accessed by foreign governments,” says the press release.
Computer Weekly and the press release then both quote Mateo Meier, director at Artmotion:
Unlike the US or the rest of Europe, Switzerland offers many data security benefits. For instance, as the country is not a member of the EU, the only way to gain access to the data hosted within a Swiss Datacenter is if the company receives an official court order proving guilt or liability.
But my question is this: how do you get the data to Switzerland? Even if PRISM can’t get it when it’s there, Tempora will get it en route. And the NSA and GCHQ are in bed together in such an incestuous relationship that it would make a great movie (first available on The Pirate Bay).
That means that data in transit to and from the host will need to be encrypted (outside of the browser because we know we cannot trust either Google or Microsoft) in true and genuine end-to-end encryption. That won’t work for a traditional public-facing website.
What about a private cloud not open to the public? Still won’t work without encryption unless all of the users have a secure link to the server – and the only way to do that is with encryption.
What about secure back-up of company data? No, you still have to encrypt it to get it to and from the host securely.
So it doesn’t matter where you host your data, the only way it can be secure is if you encrypt it. But if you encrypt it, it doesn’t matter where you host it (provided of course the NSA/GCHQ doesn’t have a backdoor into the encryption itself).
I’m all in favour of Switzerland trying to make hay from the PRISM/Tempora fall out – but don’t assume that your data is safe just because of Swiss privacy laws. You need encryption, not geography, to be private.