Tag Archives: NHS

We thought you cared(ata)

David Evans is Senior Policy Officer at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). In an interview with “The Information Daily.com” uploaded on 12 March, he spoke about data sharing in general, and specifically about care.data (elsewhere on this blog passim). There’s a video of his interview, which has a backdrop with adverts for “Boilerhouse Health” and “HCI Daily“, both of which appear to be communications companies offering services to the health sector. David says

care.data…the overall project is very good because it’s all about making better use of information in the health service…what care.data appear to have done is failed to get that message across

Oddly, this view, that if only the people behind care.data had communicated its benefits better it would have sailed through, is very similar to that expressed by Tim Kelsey, NHS National Director for Patients and Information and head cheerleader for care.data. Tim said, for instance, after the announcement of a (further) six-month delay in implementation

We have been told very clearly that patients need more time to learn about the benefits of sharing information and their right to object to their information being shared

Both David and Tim are right that there has been a failure of communication, but I think it is completely wrong to see it merely as a failure to communicate the benefits. Any project involving the wholesale upload of confidential medical records, to be processed and disclosed, at various levels of deidentification, to third parties, is going to involve risk, and will necessitate explanation of and mitigation of that risk. What the public have so far had communicated to them is plenty about the benefits, but very little about the risks, and the organisational and technical measures being taken by the various bodies involved to mitigate or contain that risk. Tim Gough has argued eloquently for a comprehensive and independent Privacy Impact Assessment to be undertaken (while criticising the one that was published in January

To be fair, NHS England did publish a PIA in January 2014, which does appear a little late in the day for a project of this kind.  It also glosses over information which is extremely important to address in full detail. Leaving it out makes it look like something is being hidden

As far as I am aware there has been no official response to this (other than a tweet from Geraint Lewis referring us to our well-thumbed copies of the ICO’s nearly-superseded PIA Handbook).

To an extent I can understand Tim Kelsey feeling he and his colleagues need to do more to communicate the benefits of care.data – after all, it’s their job to deliver it. But I do have real concerns that a senior officer at the ICO thinks that public concerns can be allayed through yet more plugging of the benefits, with none of the detailed reassurances and legal and technical justifications whose absence has been so strongly noted.

In passing, I note that, other than a message from their very pleasant Senior Press Officer for my blog, I have had no acknowledgement from the ICO of my request for them to assess the lawfulness of previous health data upload and linking.

UPDATE: 14.03.14

The ICO has kindly acknowledged receipt of my request for assessment, saying it has been passed to their health sector team for “further detailed consideration”.

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Health data breaches – missing the point?

Breaches of the DPA are not always about data security. I’m not sure NHS England have grasped this. Worse, I’m not sure the ICO understands public concern about what is happening with confidential medical information. They both need to listen.

Proponents of the care.data initiative have been keen to reassure us of the safeguards in place for any GP records uploaded to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) by saying that similar data from hospitals (Hospital Episode Statistics, or HES) has been uploaded safely for about two decades. Thus, Tim Kelsey, National Director for Patients and Information in the National Health Service, said on twitter recently that there had been

No data breach in SUS*/HES ever

I’ve been tempted to point out that this is a bit like a thief arguing that he’s been stealing from your pockets for twenty years, so why complain when you catch him stealing from your wallet? However, whether Tim’s claim is true or not partly depends on how you define a “breach”, and I suspect he is thinking of some sort of inadvertent serious loss of data, in breach of the seventh (data security) principle of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Whether there have been any of those is one issue, and, in the absence of transparency of how HES processing has been audited, I don’t know how he is so sure (an FOI request for audit information is currently stalled, while HSCIC consider whether commercial interests are or are likely to prejudiced by disclosure). But data protection is not all about data security, and the DPA can be “breached” in other ways. As I mentioned last week, I have asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to assess the lawfulness of the processing surrounding the apparent disclosure of a huge HES dataset to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, whose Society prepared a report based on it (with HSCIC’s logo on it, which rather tends to undermine their blaming the incident on their NHSIC predecessors). My feeling is that this has nothing, or very little, to do with data security – I am sure the systems used were robust and secure – but a lot to do with some of the other DPA principles, primarily, the first (processing must be fair and lawful and have an appropriate Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 condition), and the second “Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes”).

Since the story about the actuarial report, at least three other possible “breaches” have come to light. They are listed in this Register article, but it is the first that has probably caused the most concern. It appears that the entire HES dataset, pseudonymised (not, note, anonymised) of around one terabyte, was uploaded to Google storage, and processed using Big Query. An apparently rather unconcerned statement from HSCIC (maybe they’ll blame their predecessors again, if necessary) said

The NHS Information Centre (NHS IC) signed an agreement to share pseudonymised Hospital Episodes Statistics data with PA Consulting  in November 2011…PA Consulting used a product called Google BigQuery to manipulate the datasets provided and the NHS IC  was aware of this.  The NHS IC  had written confirmation from PA Consulting prior to the agreement being signed that no Google staff would be able to access the data; access continued to be restricted to the individuals named in the data sharing agreement

So that’s OK then? Well, not necessarily. Google’s servers (and, remember “cloud” really means “someone else’s computer”) are dotted around the world, although mostly in the US, and when you upload data to the cloud, one of the problems (or benefits) is you don’t have, or don’t tend to think you have, a real say in where it is hosted. By a certain argument, this even makes the cloud provider, in DPA terms, a data controller, because it is partly determining “the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed”. If the hosting is outside the European Economic Area the eight DPA principle comes into play:

Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data

The rather excellent Tim Gough who is producing some incredibly helpful stuff on his site, has a specific page on DPA and the cloud and I commend it to you. Now, it may be that, because Google has conferred on itself “Safe Harbor” status, the eight principle is deemed to have been complied with, but I’m not sure it’s as straightforward because, in any case, Safe Harbor itself is of current questionable status and assurance.

I don’t know if PA Consulting’s upload of HES data to the cloud was in compliance with their and NHSIC’s/HSCIC’s DPA obligations, but, then again, I’m not the regulator of the DPA. So, in addition to last week’s request for assessment, I’ve asked the ICO to assess this processing as well

Hi again

I don’t yet have any reference number, but please note my previous email for reference. News has now emerged that the entire HES database may have been uploaded to some form of Google cloud storage. Would you also please assess this for compliance with the DPA? I am particularly concerned to know whether it was in compliance with the first, seventh and eighth data protection principle. This piece refers to the alleged upload to Google servers http://t.co/zWF2QprsTN

best wishes,
Jon

However, I’m now genuinely concerned by a statement from the ICO, in response to the news that they are to be given compulsory powers of audit of NHS bodies. They say (in the context of the GP data proposed to be uploaded under the care.data initiative)

The concerns around care.data come from this idea that the health service isn’t particularly good at looking after personal information

I’m not sure if they’re alluding to their own concerns, or the public’s, but I think the statement really misunderstands the public’s worries about care.data, and the use of medical data in general. From many, many discussions with people, and from reading more about this subject than is healthy, it seems to me that people have a general worry about, and objection to, their confidential medical information possibly being made available to commercial organisations, for the potential profit of the latter, and this concern stems from the possibility that this processing will lead to them being identified, and adversely affected by that processing. If the ICO doesn’t understand this, then I really think they need to start listening. And, that, of course, also goes for NHS England.

*“SUS” refers to HSCIC’s, and its predecessor, NHSIC’s Secondary Uses Service

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Why no prison sentences for misuse of medical data?

So, the government, roused from its torpor by the public outrage at the care.data proposals, and the apparent sale of 47 million patient records to actuaries, is said to be proposing, as a form of reassurance, amendments to the Care Bill. The Telegraph reports that

Jeremy Hunt will unveil new laws to ensure that medical records can only be released when there is a “clear health benefit” rather than for “purely commercial” use by insurers and other companies.

Ministers will also bolster criminal sanctions for organisations which breach data protection laws by disclosing people’s personal data. Under a “one strike and you’re out” approach, they will be permanently banned from accessing NHS data

One needs to be aware that this is just a newspaper report, and as far as I know it hasn’t been confirmed by the minister or anyone else in the government, but if it is accurate, I fear it shows further contempt for public concerns about the risks to the confidentiality of their medical records.

The first of the reported amendments sounds like a statutory backing to the current assurances that patient data will only be made available to third parties if it is for the purposes that will benefit the health and social care system (see FAQ 39 on the Guide for GP Practices). It also sounds like a very difficult piece of legislation to draft, and it will be very interesting to see what the proposed amendment actually says – will it allow secondary use for commercial purposes, as long as the primary use is for a “clear health benefit”? and, crucially, how on earth will it be regulated and enforced? (will properly resourced regulators be allowed to audit third parties’ use of data? – I certainly hope so).

The second amendment implies that the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) will also be amended. This also sounds like a difficult provision to draft: the Telegraph says

Those that have committed even one prior offence involving patient data will be barred from accessing NHS medical records indefinitely as part of a “one strike and you’re out” approach

But what do we mean by “offence”? The Telegraph falls into the common error of thinking that the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO’s) powers to serve monetary penalty notices (MPNs) to a maximum of £500,000 are criminal justice powers; they are not – MPNs are civil notices, and the money paid is not a “fine” but a penalty. The only relevant current criminal offence in the DPA is that of (in terms) deliberately or recklessly obtaining or disclosing personal data without authority of the data controller. This is an either-way offence, which means it currently carries a maximum sanction of a £5000 fine in a magistrates court, or an unlimited fine in Crown Court (it is very rare for cases to be tried in the latter though). Prosecutions under this section (55) are generally brought against individuals, because the offence involves obtaining or disclosing the data without the authority of the data controller. It is unlikely that a company would commit a section 55 offence. More likely is that a company would seriously contravene the DPA in a manner which would lead to a (civil) MPN, or more informal ICO enforcement action. More likely still is simply that the ICO would have made a finding of “unlikely to have complied” with the DPA, under section 42 – a finding which carries little weight. Are prior civil or informal action, or a section 42 “unlikely to have complied” assessment going to count for the “one strike and you’re out” approach? And even if they are, what is to stop miscreant individuals or companies functioning through proxies, or agents? or even simply lying to get access to the data?

Noteworthy by its absence in the Telegraph reports of the proposed amendments was any reference to the one change to data protection law which actually might have a deterrent effect on those who illegally obtain or disclose personal data – the possibility of being sent to prison. As I and others have written before, all that is needed to achieve this is for the government to commence Section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which would create the power to alter the penalty (including a custodial sentence) for a section 55 DPA offence. However, the government has long been lobbied by certain sections of the press industry not to do so, because of apparent fears that it would give the state the power to imprison investigative journalists (despite the fact that section 78 of the Criminal Justice Act 2008 – also uncommenced – creating a new defence for journalistic, literary or artistic purposes). The Information Commissioner has repeatedly called for the law to be changed so that there is a real sanction for serious criminal data protection offences, but to no avail.

Chris Pounder has argued that the custodial sentence provisions (discussion of which was kicked into the long grass which grew up in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry) might never be introduced. Despite the calls for such strong penalties for misuse of medical data, from influential voices such as Ben Goldacre, the proposals for change outlined by the Telegraph seem to support Dr Pounder’s view.

One of the main criticisms of the disastrous public relations and communications regarding the care.data initiative is that people’s acute concerns about the security of their medical records have been dismissed with vague or misleading reassurances. With the announcement of these vague and probably ineffectual proposed legal sanctions, what a damned shame that that looks to be continuing.

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Hospital records sold to insurance companies – in breach of the Data Protection Act?

I’ve asked the ICO to assess whether the sale of millions of health records to insurance companies so that they could “refine” their premiums was compliant with the law

I’m about to disclose some sensitive personal data: I have been to hospital a few times over recent years…along with 47 million other people, whose records from these visits, according to reports in the media, were sold to an actuarial society for insurance premium purposes. The Telegraph reports

a report by a major UK insurance society discloses that it was able to obtain 13 years of hospital data – covering 47 million patients – in order to help companies “refine” their premiums.

As a result they recommended an increase in the costs of policies for thousands of customers last year. The report by the Staple Inn Actuarial Society – a major organisation for UK insurers – details how it was able to use NHS data covering all hospital in-patient stays between 1997 and 2010 to track the medical histories of patients, identified by date of birth and postcode.

I don’t know if this use of my sensitive personal data (if it was indeed my personal data) was in compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), although sadly I suspect that it was, but section 42 of the DPA allows a data subject to request the Information Commissioner to make an assessment as to whether it is likely or unlikely that the processing has been or is being carried out in compliance with the provisions of the DPA. So that’s what I’ve done:

Hi

As a data subject with a number of hospital episodes over recent years I am disturbed to hear that the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) of potentially 47 million patients were disclosed to Staple Inn Actuarial Society (SIAS), apparently for the purposes of helping insurance companies “refine” their premiums. I became aware of this through reports in the media (e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10656893/Hospital-records-of-all-NHS-patients-sold-to-insurers.html). I am asking, pursuant to my right under section 42 of the Data Protection Act 1998, the ICO to assess whether various parts of this process were in compliance with the relevant data controllers’ obligations under the DPA:

1) I was not aware, until relatively recently, that HESs were provided to the HSCIC – was this disclosure by hospitals compliant with their DPA obligations?

2) Was the general processing (e.g. retention, manipulation, anonymisation, pseudonymisation) of this personal data compliant with HSCIC’s or, to the extent that HSCIC is a data processor to NHS England’s data controller, NHS England’s DPA obligations?

3) Was the disclosure of what appears to have been sensitive personal data (I note the broad definition of “personal data”, and your own guidance on anonymisation) to SIAS compliant with HSCIC’s (or NHS England’s) DPA obligations

4) Was SIAS’s subsequent processing of this sensitive personal data compliant with its DPA obligations?

You will appreciate that I do not have access to some information, so it may be that when I refer to HSCIC or NHS England or SIAS I should refer to predecessor organisations.

Please let me know if you need any further information to make this assessment.

with best wishes, Jon Baines

We’ve been told on a number of occasions recently that we shouldn’t be worried about our GP records being uploaded to HSCIC under the care.data initiative, because our hospital records have been used in this way for so long. Clare Gerada, former Chair of the Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners wrote in the BMJ that

for 25 years, hospital data have been handled securely with a suite of legal safeguards to protect confidentiality—the exact same safeguards that will continue to be applied when primary care data are added

Well, it seems to me that those legal safeguards might have failed to prevent (indeed, might have actively permitted) a breach involving 47 million records. I’m very interested to know what the Information Commissioner’s assessment will be.

UPDATE: 24 February 2014

An ICO spokesperson later said:

“We’re aware of this story, and will be gathering more information – specifically around whether the information had been anonymised – before deciding what action to take.”

UPDATE: 25 February 2014

At the Health Select Committee hearing into the care.data initiative HSCIC and NHS England representatives appeared not to know much about what data was disclosed, and in what circumstances, and effectively blamed NHSIC as a predecessor organisation. This echoed the statement from HSCIC the previous evening

The HSCIC believes greater scrutiny should have been applied by our predecessor body prior to an instance where data was shared with an actuarial society

UPDATE: 27 February 2014

GP and Clinical Lecturer Anne Marie Cunningham has an excellent post on what types of data were apparently disclosed by NHSIC (or HSCIC), and subsequently processed by, or on behalf, of SIAS. I would recommend reading the comments as well. It does seems to me that we may still be talking about pseudonymised personal data, which would mean that the relevant data controllers still had obligations under the DPA, and the ICO would have jurisdiction to investigate, and, if necessary, take regulatory action.

See also Tony Hirst’s blog posts on the subject . These are extremely complex issues, but, at a time when the future of the sharing and linking of health and other data is being hotly debated, and when the ICO is seeking feedback on its Anonymisation Code of Practice, they are profoundly important ones.

UPDATE: 14 March 2014

The ICO has kindly acknowledged receipt of my request for assessment, saying it has been passed to their health sector team for “further detailed consideration”.

UPDATE: 24 May 2014

Er, there is no real update. There was a slight hiccup, when the ICO told me it was not making an assessment because “[it] is already aware of this issue and is investigating them accordingly. Given that we do not necessarily require individual complaints to take consider taking further action your case is closed”. After I queried the legal basis for failing to make a section 42 assessment as requested, the position was “clarified”:

…we will make an assessment in relation to this case, however we are unable to do so at this present time…This is because the office is currently investigating whether, as alleged in the media, actual personal data has been shared by the HSCIC to various other organisations including Staple Inn, PA consulting and Google

I don’t criticise the ICO for taking its time to investigate: it involves a complicated assessment of whether the data disclosed was personal data. In a piece I wrote recently for the Society of Computers and Law I described the question of whether data is anonymous or not as a “profound debate”. And it is also highly complex. But what this delay, in assessing just one aspect of health data disclosure, does show, is that the arbitrary six-month delay to the implementation of care.data was never going to be sufficient to deal with all the issues, and sufficiently assure the public, and medical practitioners, to enable it to proceed. A vote on 23 May by the BMA’s Local Medical Committee’s conference emphatically illustrates this.

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Big Pharma and care.data

Patients’ identifiable medical data will end up in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies, under the care.data initiative. With “Big Pharma” beholden to shareholders, and its abysmal record on transparency, is this another reason to consider opting out?

We are often told by those publicly defending the care.data programme (I’m thinking particularly of NHS Chief Data Officer Geraint Lewis, and NHS National Director for Patients and Information Tim Kelsey, who at least are prepared to engage with critics – although the latter has a habit of resorting to personal attacks at times) that patients’ identifiable/amber/pseudonymised data will not be made available to commercial organisations to use for their own purposes. So, we are told, it cannot be used for the purposes of selling or administering any kind of insurance, or for marketing purposes. As the pdf of FAQs, to which we are often referred (by Geraint in particular) says

Potentially identifiable data – these data do not include identifiers but may be considered identifiable (e.g. due to a patient in an area having a rare disease or a rare combination of characteristics). There are strict controls around the limited release of such data. For example, there must be a contract in place, the data are only released to approved organisations, and restricted to a specific purposes that will benefit the health and social care system
Let’s ignore for now the awkward question of how these restrictions can effectively be enforced. Let’s also ignore the fact that this data will not simply be “released” – organisations will pay for it, and a commercial organisation, with fiduciary obligations to its owners or shareholders, is not going to pay for something unless there is potential financial benefit.
What I wanted to highlight is that purposes that will benefit the health and social care system will generally boil down to two things: commissioning of services, and research. Regarding the latter, as the NHS Health Research Authority says this can take many forms, and be undertaken by many different bodies, but it will be no big revelation if I point out that vast amounts of research are conducted by, or under the control of, huge pharmaceutical companies – Big Pharma. Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre has been campaigning for a number of years, following up the lead of others such as Iain Chalmers to expose the fact that an enormous amount of data and results from research – specifcally, admittedly, of clinical trials – is withheld by Big Pharma. This led to the setting-up of the AllTrials campaign. As Ben said, on the publication of a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee into the withholding of trial results for Tamiflu
[the] report is a complete vindication of AllTrials’ call for all the results, of all the trials, on all the uses of all currently prescribed treatments. None of the proposed new legislation or codes of conduct come anywhere close to this simple, vital ask. Industry has claimed it is on the verge of delivering transparency for over two decades. While obfuscating and delaying, ever more results have been withheld. Some in industry now claim that results from even a decade ago may be lost and inaccessible. This is both implausible and unacceptable…We cannot make informed decisions about which treatment is best when vitally important information is routinely and legally kept secret. Future generations will look back at this absurd situation in the same way that we look back on mediaeval bloodletting
This is the same industry which will be able to purchase patients’ identifiable medical data, uploaded from their GP records for research purposes. Will the NHS ever see the results of this research if, for instance, those results could have a potentially adverse effect on the companies’ share prices? Will there be any legal or contractual mechanisms in place to ensure that we don’t see similar obfuscating and delaying, and withholding of results?
Is it really the insurance and marketing companies we need to worry about?

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