Sale of patient data – time for an independent review?

The Sunday Times reports that a billion patient records have been sold to a marketing consultancy. Is it time for an independent review of these highly questionable data sharing practices?

In 2012, at the behest of the then Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley (driver of the Health and Social Care Act 2012), Dame Fiona Caldicott chaired a review of information governance in the NHS. Her report, which focused on the issue of sharing of information, was published in April 2013. At the time a statement in it, referring to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) stood out to me, and it stands out even more now, but for different reasons. It says

The ICO told the Review Panel that no civil monetary penalties have been served for a breach of the Data Protection Act due to formal data sharing between data controllers in any organisation for any purpose

At the time, I thought “Well duh” – of course the ICO is not going to take enforcement action where there has been a formal data sharing agreement, because, clearly, the parties entering into such an agreement are going to make sure they do so lawfully, and with regard to the ICO guidance on data sharing – lawful and proportionate data sharing is, er, lawful, so the ICO wouldn’t be able to take action.

But now, with the frequent and worrying stories emerging of apparent data sharing arrangements between the NHS Information Centre (NHSIC), and its successor, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), I start to think the ICO’s comments are remarkable for what they might reveal about them looking in the wrong direction, when they should have been paying more attention to the lawfulness of huge scale data sharing arrangements between the NHS and private bodies. And now, The Sunday Times reports that

A BILLION NHS records containing details of patients’ hospital admissions and operations have been sold to a marketing consultancy working for some of the world’s biggest drug companies

I think it is time for a wholesale review, properly funded, by the ICO as independent regulator, of these “formal data sharing” arrangements. They appear to have a questionable legal basis, based to a large extent on questionable assumptions and assurances that pseudonymisation equates to anonymisation (which anyone who looks into will realise is nonsense).

And I think the review should also consider how and why these arrangements appear to have deliberately been taking place behind the backs of the patients whose data has been “shared”.

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Filed under care.data, Data Protection, data sharing, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice, NHS, Privacy

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