Friday 28 February 2014

Adolph Hitler: his part in’s downfall

The NHS data sharing opponents have implemented a cunning plan to disarm the supporters of the project. It’s called humour, and it comes by means of a genuinely funny video that aims to undermine those who (like me) believe that data sharing within the health sector is a good thing.

How will NHS England respond? Perhaps they’ll come up with something just as funny. I do hope so. Otherwise, I fear that the opponents will continue to win hands down on the publicity front.

NHS England wants to do a great amount of good. But, do enough people trust it? 



Monday 24 February 2014

Online Reputation Management

How do you maintain a good on-line reputation? What can you do when others post extremely embarrassing comments (or images) about you? How can they be removed – or at least made less visible to search engines, to prevent others from stumbling across the relevant links?

I've recently been advising someone who is very concerned about what has happened to them: "For years there has been an offensive post about me on the internet. It is embarrassing and I have wished for years that it would get removed. However, the website where it was posted has closed down and I have no means of contacting them."

Despite Google's efforts to remove the offending material from its search results, the victim remains concerned that others will find it.

Not even the fabled "right to be forgotten" proposal in the Data Protection Regulation would have been of much help in this instance - as the material was originally posted by an American company that has folded - but who passed their data assets to another US company before  closing down.

How can victims be reassured that embarrassing material won't be shadowing them for  years to come?

Of course I appreciate the tension between freedom of expression, on the one hand, and censorship, on the other. But I also appreciate the anguish that victims feel when it appears (at least to them) that they are being unfairly hounded.

Perhaps, in time, the shadow from the embarrassing material will slip down search rankings, as more favourable information about an individual is posted.

But the internet (and particularly the Internet Archive) does not forget. Somehow we have to come to terms with this reality. Just as we need to accept that data controllers have rights, too. Particularly in terms of the information assets they have legitimately acquired.

What’s most poignant is that the person I’m advising is just 17 years old. Having had the shadow of this material around their neck for a few years already, you can imagine how they might feel if they were told that there was no hope that this material would ever be placed beyond the reach of internet users.  

If you can’t afford the services of reputation management companies like Iginyte, then who can you turn to?

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Friday 21 February 2014

Lies, damm lies, and ICO statistics

Data Breaches. Who’d report them?

Well, over the past 9 months there has been a steady increase in the number of incidents that have been reported to the ICO. Admittedly, is still a miniscule amount. Were it not for our chums in the health, local Government and education sectors, you might be mistaken for thinking that data controllers had, mostly, blown an almighty raspberry in Wilmslow’s direction by ignoring the invitation to report data breaches. When even Britain’s mighty telecommunications companies, who are compelled to make reports, can only think of seven incidents to report in the past 9 months, you get a sense of what is actually going on.

Does it matter?

It probably only matters if people misuse the statistics that are eventually published. It would be awful, for example, if NHS opponents were to misuse the most recently published ICO statistics to infer that data protection standards in the health sector were significantly worse than in other sectors.  No. To my mind, the statistics simply indicate that NHS managers have a pretty good idea of what is going on within their own organisations, and they tend to follow the breach reporting rules more closely than other sectors.

I do hope that the ICO statistics are not going to be misused by NHS opponents to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the NHS. Especially now that a public awareness campaign is being relaunched to commend to patients the potential benefits of greater sharing some of their medical information. Such misuse would be completely wrong. Tempting, perhaps, but completely wrong.

When do we get to a stage, though, where the reported statistics are considered so meaningless that it is not worth carrying out any trend analysis? Are we seeing most of this elephant, or are we merely viewing a pimple on the elephant’s bum?

Perhaps what is helpful is not the volume of breach reports (which contain no information about the number of potential victims affected by each incident), but that these reports can be used to take a snapshot of the types of incidents that have occurred. Was the data disclosed in error? Lost in transit? Was there a technical security failing, or an insecure disposal? Data protection professionals can then turn the reports into “war stories,” for local consumption.

Accordingly, I think the ICO is right to continue to publish these statistics, but I would welcome a more thorough “health warning” to remind the uninitiated that what they are seeing is not the whole picture.



Thursday 20 February 2014

Hurrah! Two more years!!

Well, it’s happened. Commissioner Graham’s tenure has been extended by two years. He’ll be strapped to the helm of the ICO while it goes through what can only be described as interesting times. It will be another Government that decides who ought to replace him in the summer of 2016.

The recent, and impending, departure of other high profile data protection regulators from the European scene ought make it harder for the those who see data protection more in terms of a tick exercise to thrive. Christopher Graham’s continued presence on the Article 29 Working Party will make it easier for him to spread his more pragmatic vision about how good data protection standards should be implemented across Europe. Those who might have wished for him to be removed from the European scene have had their hopes dashed.

The next few years in Wilmslow (and in Brussels) are not going to be easy. And, it becomes ever harder to expect that institutions like the ICO should do “more” with “less”, but that is the current political ask.  We’ve seen the difficulties that the Environment Agency is experiencing, reconciling savage budget cuts with the need to address our changing climate. Let’s hope that the ICO won’t face a similar debacle should a new data crisis emerge for which we are all woefully unprepared.

Anyway, Commissioner Graham will be the star turn at his Data Protection Practitioner Conference in Manchester on 3 March. I predict that he’ll enter the stage to coloured lights, tumultuous applause, and as the dry ice wafts away, the ICO Chorus will chant:

Two more years, two more years
Well known in international spheres
He who will valliantly persevere
In the fight against the dodgy data racketeer

Meeting conference conventioneers
Drinking wine that rots your teeth veneers
Grazing on canapés, Belgium beer
And a rather fine asparagus spear

While in the office:

Leading teams of pragmatic pioneers
Few officials are wet behind the ears
Then all too soon into a better paid career
And all too frequently they will disappear

Data subjects – some in tears
Setting out their deepest fears
Of sneaky stuff by an internet app engineer
Clueless about any legal frontier

24 more monthly salary payments in arrears
Then salvation reappears
Awarded with a gong as a souvenir
And into another world he’ll disappear

Lighting up the true path through this regulatory mayhem
Let’s raise three cheers for Christopher Graham

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Wednesday 19 February 2014

NHS information sharing crisis: the result

So, the recent crisis talks have resulted in an outbreak of common sense – the information sharing proposals are not to be derailed, but will instead the implementation date will be delayed for six months. This will give the “No, Never” brigade time to encourage more people to register as a conscientious objector, and it will also give NHS England more time to explain the benefits of the information sharing scheme to those who want to listen.

What else might happen to encourage the public to sit up and take notice? Will a character from The Archers suddenly fall ill and face a difficult recovery in hospital because their GP medical records were lost in the recent floods? Can any relevant storylines be slipped into Casualty, Holby City, 24hrs in A&E, Embarrassing Bodies, or any another of the medical series currently in production?   


At least an argument about the correct protocols for sharing confidential medical information makes a change from the argument about the perils of communications surveillance. Memo to Edward Snowden: move over – let’s have Phil Booth and the medConfidential crew hogging the headlines for a bit.

A note for your diary – if you join the Open Rights Group today, you will have the pleasure of hearing more about Phil’s concerns at a special session on 17 March. For those who don’t know, Phil is the former National Coordinator of NO2ID, the pressure group that opposed the introduction of national identity cards, and we all know how successful that campaign was.

A six month delay won’t necessarily be a problem for NHS England. It ought to result in more time for “facts” to be publicly discussed and for determined health professionals to ensure that their patients are better informed about the choice that is available to them.

But, given Phil’s natural flair for publicity, it could be a high-profile “anti” campaign that NHS England will be forced to respond to.

Will the delay result in significantly greater numbers of people who visit their GP’s surgery formally registering  their objections to the scheme?

Will the delay result in a new range of choices being made available – say, sharing to identify patterns in care, and to facilitate genuine medical research; and sharing / selling to the private sector. That’s not what NHS England want.

My postbag tells me that there are people who don't object to the first choice, but who do object to the second, fearing it is highly unlikely to be used to their benefit. It is feared that insurance companies will match the data they get with their own records, which might result in increased premiums and denied cover rather than reduced premiums and increased cover:

“As someone who has a history of respiratory issues, but who has been healthy for a long time, I see a serious risk of the more detailed knowledge of my medical records being used to disadvantage me in the future. However, I see only benefit in allowing my details to be used to look at patterns of care and for genuine medical research. I think more people would be supportive and there would be less controversy if the permissions structure reflected the actual stages of sharing that will happen.”

If these fears are groundless, then NHS England needs to redouble its efforts to get the correct message across.

There is another bright side to this issue. Given the demise of the European Data Protection Regulation, at least we data protection folk have something nice and meaty to mull over for the next six months. It keeps issues about information security in the headlines, and it reminds employers why this data protection malarkey is so important.


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Tuesday 18 February 2014

NHS information sharing “crisis”: what next?

I feel quite sorry for the NHS officials who are tasked with delivering the project to share NHS patient information more efficiently. They are dedicated professionals, trying to implement what I think is a good idea.

But they are now caught up in a public campaign, which appears to be growing in terms of media coverage, designed to highlight the potential drawbacks of the scheme, and to radically change it. Evidently, “crisis talks” are now taking place to determine what to do next.

Have NHS officials done enough to persuade the majority of the population that there is little to fear from the project? The Privacy Impact Assessment recently published by NHS England asserts that the risks are manageable. It complements the PIA published last year by the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which (surprise, surprise) contained the same message. To be fair, though, the HSCIC’s document focussed less on the potential risks, and more on the privacy safeguards.

Where does this leave us?

It leaves us in a state where a policy decision now needs to be made on whether to delay / abandon the implementation of the scheme (which is penciled in for next month), or whether to carry on regardless. But how much more publicity is required before it is considered that patients have been appropriately informed about the scheme and their right not to participate in it? And who is empowered to say “stop”?

Perhaps some pressure will be placed on the ICO to issue a “go / no-go” pronouncement. But we all know that the ICO is very keen not to stifle innovation, and in any event it is likely to wish NHS England and the HSCIC to receive any negative publicity that would result from such a decision, rather than allow any criticism to focus on the role of the regulator.

NHS England’s PIA was pretty realistic about how the data sharing scheme was likely to resonate with the public. It made the point that there will always be supporters and opponents:  

“In summary, people who conclude that the net impact of on privacy will be positive are very likely to be supportive of the programme. Even people who feel the impact will be detrimental to privacy may recognise that the potential benefits of using data from patient records are great, and may therefore feel they are justified ethically on that basis. However, some people may believe that any use of patient identifiable data without explicit patient consent is unacceptable. These people are unlikely to be supportive of whatever its potential benefits and may object to the use of personal confidential data for wider healthcare purposes.

The HSCIC will be processing data on behalf of NHS England and we have detailed the information governance and pledges in relation to The HSCIC PIA concludes 'While the HSCIC is new, its functions, including the safe and secure processing of data are well founded, tried and tested in previous constituent organisations. The patient, and therefore protecting patient confidentiality, is at the heart of everything we do'. NHS England is committed to working in partnership with the HSCIC and shares this view.”

One lesson I’ve taken from this saga is that PIAs can be extremely useful tools for people who are keen to take snippets of text and use them out of context. But how useful a document will they become if they all have to be cleared by an organisation’s PR team before they can be formally published?

Another lesson I suspect the Government will take from this saga is that it should postpone proposals for new data sharing legislation until after the next General Election, as such an initiative is hardly likely to be a vote winner.



Friday 14 February 2014

Communications data: broken promises

No, I’m not bitter, but what better day is there to review anyone’s broken promises than on St Valentine’s Day?

Take, for example, what was said back in 2010, when the Coalition Agreement boldly announced  what it was that the Coalition Government would aim to achieve over the life of the current Parliament. 

I was particularly drawn to the commitment that: “We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.” Well, well, well. Today, the chance of a new Communications Data Bill being considered by Parliament before the General Election in 2015 is absolutely zero. Given the fear that that any proposals might be scuppered by politicians determined to do "something" in light of the Snowden revelations, there’s little likelihood of new legislation for the foreseeable future, unless perhaps some European court throws an almighty fit about how long communications data is currently retained within Europe. And even then, I doubt that a British Government, keen to display its Eurosceptic credentials, would take any immediate action.

I was also drawn to the Coalition Government’s commitment that:“We will ban the use of powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by councils, unless they are signed off by a magistrate and required for stopping serious crime.” This has been done, and to great effect. But has it improved our criminal justice system? Thanks to the state of our criminal justice system, the mechanics of getting RIPA applications signed off by a magistrate are so cumbersome, expensive and protracted that the volume of RIPA applications from local authorities have plummeted to historic lows. Those who are celebrating this significant measure are the dodgy dealers, cowboy builders and other petty criminals who continue to make people’s lives a misery, but who remain beyond the reach of local authority investigators. Well, well, well.

Stand up, all those who are proud of these particular achievements.

But, on  a day like today, why should anyone be bitter?

Happy St Valentine’s Day.


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Tuesday 11 February 2014

OMG! Another bad news day

Happy Safer Internet Day.

But can it really be the case that the EU-sponsored Safer Internet Day website has completely failed to implement the EU’s own on-line privacy laws?

If you can find any info on cookies, you’re eyes are better than mine.

Does the website really say in the “online issues” section that digital footprints are a good thing, because it helps prevent crime? To be fair, the website also explains that "every time you publish information online, for everyone to see, a little bit of your privacy will disappear and you will be adding to your online reputation and digital footprint." 

Co-incidentally, while Commissioner Viviane Reding was attending official meetings in Central London today, thieves most unfortunately stole a suitcase containing her personal effects and jewellery from her unattended and unlocked official car. Apparently the only case they left was the case containing her official documents.

Thank goodness they didn’t steal any of her papers. It would have been deeply ironic if she had to report a personal data breach to the European Data Protection Supervisor (yes, he who cannot yet be replaced) and face disciplinary measures for her failure to properly safeguard personal data.

Surely, the data protection news can’t get any worse today.



Sunday 9 February 2014

Good and bad surveillance

Gossip is what keeps us going, and we puritans always enjoy a quick peak into the private lives of others every now and again.

Many of us have had a good chuckle at the recent misfortunes of those hapless American diplomats who forgot that their telephone calls were capable of being monitored. The  recent “F*ck the EU” comment, uttered by US diplomat Victoria Nuland (pictured left) during a phone conversation with  the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, when discussing a plan for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to help sort out the situation in the country, won't be forgotten for some time (if ever).

It would have been nice for those who released the recording to have included the bit where the US Ambassador scolded Nutland for making such an uncouth remark. As this part of the conversation was not made public, I can only assume that the scolding occurred another time.

Perhaps, it was when the world+dog got to hear of her views. Or when the US President learnt of them. Or, after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that the EU would not comment on a "leaked alleged" conversation. Or, when spokesman Christiane Wirtz stated that the German Chancellor had termed Nuland's remark "absolutely unacceptable." 

If I were to bet on the identity of those responsible for the publication of the intercepted material, I would not just cast my eye at the Russians, who surely must have the technical capability to intercept diplomatic phone calls. I would also consider the Germans, perhaps in retaliation for the recent revelations about the ability of the US Administration to intercept Mrs Merkel’s phone calls.  Revenge is a dish best served kälte.

Anyway in my eyes, this is “good surveillance,” as it serves to keep all diplomats on their toes. They have to assume that whatever they do is being monitored, and thus they have to behave properly at all times.  In this day and age, diplomats should expect to be held accountable for all their thoughts and actions.

This is a very different case than what I term “bad surveillance,” which is what the experienced Telegraph journalist Catherine Gee (pictured right) has recently been getting up to.

Those of us with nothing better to do last night might have joined me in settling down on the sofa for the latest episode of “The Voice,” the reality show where a bunch of wannabies pitch for a career in show business.

A “discovery” last night was one contestant, for whom news of  any previous show business experience was withheld from us. We had to wait for Catherine's TV review to learn that the contestant: “had previously reached the bootcamp stage of The X Factor in 2010 and provided backing vocals for JLS.” But what was quite shocking was Catherine’s next comment: “Some internet housekeeping has also recently taken place as this information was gleaned from cached versions of deleted internet pages.”

Is it ethical for a journalist to search through “deleted” material for a show business story about a nobody?

Unless there is a sufficiently good reason for this, I say no. There simply wasn’t enough in the story to allege that we, the public, were being willfully misled either by a TV production team, or by said wannabe, to justify the intrusion into their past life.

What does this tell me?  That a Telegraph journalist is capable of doing the dirty on wannabe starlets that have barely experienced their first few minutes of fame.  Said wannabe hasn't even been able to have been booted off the show after the first sing off, or implode under the pressure of living in the public eye.

The lesson we must learn is that, in the digital world, we forfeit our right to privacy when we use the internet. We forfeit it for reasons of national security, and also for the purposes of journalism. We cannot assume that material no longer available on the internet has been deleted. We have to assume that, thanks to tools like the Internet Archive, any material we have previously uploaded is and will always remain available to those who have the means to access it. Which include spies and journalists.

We have all lost the right to “forget.” Instead we should campaign to replace it with a new one – the right to “forgive.”


Thursday 6 February 2014

About “weak” regulators ...

I had expected to have generated a little more feedback on my recent post about the weakest EU privacy regulator. I had hoped that more people would have pointed out that they were being misled. The trick, actually, is not to look too closely at the range of resources or regulatory tools available to each regulator when assessing their usefulness (or necessity).   

This can be a pretty futile way of assessing the extent to which data controllers comply with relevant laws.

What really matters is outcomes.

What really matters are the behaviours that are exhibited by data controllers.

A regulator doesn't need a big stick (or a huge staff) if the data controllers he is accountable for regulating are behaving decently.

Remember the 1995 movie Babe.

Babe (the pig) won the sheepdog trials not because he frightened the sheep into compliance, but because he engaged constructively with them, and in so doing he got them to act in ways that no-one had previously managed.

The moral of today's blog is straightforward: we don't need regulators with big sticks (or a huge staff) if data controllers set out to behave decently in the first place.   

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