Not happy with its attempt to sell your health details to private companies, the moneygrubbing Conservative-led Coalition wants to sell off your personal tax data to companies, researchers and public bodies.
The government is considering how much to charge for the information, and claims that all data accessed by third parties will be “confidential”.
But the public has already been stung once by the Coalition’s incompetent attempts to go commercial. The proposed initiative to share NHS medical records with the private sector had to be suspended after a public outcry over “pseudonymised” data – a process by which medical records were said to be anonymous but it was in fact possible to trace exactly whose they were.
The plans for HM Revenue and Customs to share its data are, apparently, being overseen by Treasury minister David Gauke, whose relaxed attitude towards private firms led him to sign off on the infamous “sweetheart deals” that allowed multinational companies to keep billions of pounds of tax that they owed to the Treasury but didn’t want to pay.
Worse still, it turns out the government has already allowed private firms access to our data.
The government has strict rules about what can be released outside HMRC, with a near total ban on data sharing unless it is beneficial for the organisation’s internal work. But according to The Guardian, despite the restrictions, HMRC has quietly launched a pilot programme that has released data about VAT registration for research purposes to three private credit ratings agencies: Experian, Equifax and Dun & Bradstreet.
To comply with the law, the private ratings agencies, which determine credit scores for millions of people and businesses, have been contracted to act on behalf of HMRC and are “therefore treated as part of the department” – giving them access to tax data about businesses that would otherwise be confidential.
The government’s plans to change the law to allow the sale of anonymised individual tax data and release of the VAT register were buried in documents as part of the autumn statement and recent budget.
An HMRC spokesman told the BBC: “HMRC would only share data where this would generate clear public benefits, and where there are robust safeguards in place.
“Last year’s consultation made it very clear that there would be a rigorous accreditation process for anyone wanting access to the data and that any access would take place in a secure environment.
“Those accessing data would be subject to the same confidentiality provisions as HMRC staff, including a criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure of taxpayer information.”
So there. Do you feel better now?
Emma Carr, deputy director of civil rights campaign group, Big Brother Watch, doesn’t. She said: “The ongoing claims about anonymous data overlook the serious risks to privacy of individual level data being vulnerable to re-identification.
“Given the huge uproar about similar plans for medical records, you would have hoped HMRC would have learned that trying to sneak plans like this under the radar is not the way to build trust or develop good policy.”
Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, told The Guardianthe information could be highly useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practise price discrimination.
“This is going to be a big battleground,” he said. “If they were to make HMRC information more available, there’s an awful lot of people who would like to get their hands on it. Anonymisation is something about which they lied to us over medical data … If the same thing is about to be done by HMRC, there should be a much greater public debate about this.”
It seems the Conservatives in the Coalition are determined to sell information that doesn’t belong to them, and intend to grind us down with a relentless bombardment of initiatives and plans until they succeed.
They seem to by relying on the possibility that we will get ‘complaint fatigue’ and give up any protests. This is how they have beaten disabled people into submission to the draconian system for withdrawing state benefits from them; the system for appealing is drawn-out and convoluted, and many people with illnesses are too tired or weak to go through the process.
Also, this is another way of contracting-out government work to private firms, as evidenced by the VAT “research” that has been handed over to credit ratings agencies.
You can be sure of two things: Your data is not safe in their hands, and they won’t stop trying to sell it until they have been pushed out of government.
Freudian slip: The BBC’s article on the care.data delay was accompanied by this picture of a hand drawing on a diagram of a pair of breasts. Is this a tacit implication that the Department of Health has boobed? (Sorry, ladies) [Image: BBC]
A plan to sell the confidential medical information of every NHS patient in England has been put on hold after it caused a public outcry.
The care.data system, also called variously the General Patient Extraction Service (GPES) or the Health and Social Care Information Centre, was dreamed up as a money-spinning device by Jeremy Hunt’s Department of Health.
The aim is that, if you are an NHS patient in England, your GP will be forced to provide your confidential records, showing every medical condition you have ever had and providing intimate details of your current state of health, to a huge national database.
From there, your information may be sold on to private healthcare and pharmaceutical companies for “research”. A new proposal backed by NHS England (a body set up largely to support the increasing privatisation of the NHS, if my information is correct) would give non-NHS bodies including private companies the right to ask for access to the data.
The government has said the information would be “pseudonymised”, in an attempt to reassure you that you cannot be identified from the information to be provided to outside organisations. This is not true, and in fact it will be entirely possible to trace your medical information back to you.
The government claims the information will help experts assess diseases, examine the effects of new drugs and identify infection outbreaks, while also monitoring the performance of the NHS.
In fact, it seems far more likely that this is a widespread invasion of privacy, with the information likely to be used (for example) to sell you health insurance that you should not need.
Do you live in England? Are you an NHS patient? Have you realised that your Conservative-led Coalition government is selling your medical records to private healthcare and pharmaceutical companies? Do you know that these ‘anonymised’ records are in fact nothing of the sort, and anyone buying your details will be able to identify you?
Do you want to do something about it? It isn’t too late.
Vox Political warned last September that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is planning to sell records to “approved” private companies and also universities – that’s sell, mark you, to make money for the government.
The system was called the General Patient Extraction Service (GPES) – although exactly who it serves is entirely up for debate. It seems to have metamorphosed into the Health and Social Care Information Centre by now, but the purpose remains the same. You may also see it described as the care.data scheme.
Hunt wants us to believe that the information will be valuable for medical research and screening for common diseases.
In fact, the information could be used by private health companies as evidence of failures by the National Health Service, and could help those companies undercut NHS bids to continue running those services – this would accelerate the privatisation that nobody wanted.
This week, The Independent reminded us all that the system that will sell off your information will go live later this year.
The article warned: “Companies like Bupa or Virgin that already hold data on UK patients may be able to use the new anonymous data available from the centre to precisely identify where it has come from, according to campaigners.
Phil Booth, co-ordinator at patient pressure group medConfidential, said: “The scheme is deliberately designed so that ‘pseudonymised’ data – information that can be re-identified by anyone who already holds information about you – can be passed on to ‘customers’ of the information centre, with no independent scrutiny and without even notifying patients. It’s a disaster just waiting to happen.”
The information for sale to profit-making firms will contain NHS numbers, date of birth, postcode, ethnicity and gender.
Patients can opt out of the system by contacting their family doctor, but medConfidential has designed a form to make it easier.
On its ‘How to opt out’ page, the organisation writes: “Under changes to legislation, your GP can now be required to upload personal and identifiable information from the medical record of every patient in England to central servers at the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Once this information leaves your GP practice, your doctor will no longer be in control of what data is passed on or to whom.
“This information will include diagnoses, investigations, treatments and referrals as well as other things you may have shared with your doctor including your weight, alcohol consumption, smoking and family history. Each piece of information will be identifiable as it will be uploaded with your NHS number, date of birth, post code, gender and ethnicity.
“NHS England – the body now in charge of commissioning primary care services across England – will manage and use the information extracted by the Health and Social Care Information Centre for a range of purposes, none of which are to do with your direct medical care. Though the official leaflets talk a great deal about research, these ‘secondary uses’ for which your data may be used include patient-level tracking and monitoring, audit, business planning and contract management.
“In September 2013, NHS England applied to pass on your information in a form it admits “could be considered identifiable if published” to a whole range of organisations that include – but are not limited to – research bodies, universities, think tanks, “information intermediaries”, charities and private companies.
“Though you may be told that any data passed on will be ‘anonymised’, no guarantees can be given as to future re-identification – indeed information is to be treated so that it can be linked to other data at patient level – and NHS England has already been given legal exemptions to pass identifiable data across a range of regional processing centres, local area teams and commissioning bodies that came into force on April 1st 2013. The Health and Social Care Information Centre already provides access to patient data, some in identifiable form, to a range of ‘customers’ outside the NHS, including private companies.”
The opt-out form is downloadable from the medConfidential web page, along with a form letter in various formats, allowing patients to opt out themselves, their children and any adults for whom they are responsible.
This is a gross abuse of patient confidentiality for the purpose of commercial gain.
Don’t let it happen to you.
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The two-fingered salute: Jeremy *unt displays his high regard for the NHS patients whose details he wants to steal and sell to private business.
Conservatives. They think they own everything – including your medical records.
If you live in England, Jeremy ‘The Misprint’ *unt wants your doctor to send your confidential patient record to a national database, from which it will be sold on – sold on to make money for him, mark you – to “approved” private companies and also universities.
The system is called the General Patient Extraction Service (GPES) – although exactly who it serves is entirely up for debate. You may also see it described as the care.data scheme.
He thinks this gross abuse of patient confidentiality is a good idea. But then, he’s a Tory and therefore thinks he has a God-given right to take anything, from anyone, if they have less filthy lucre than himself.
According to the Daily Mail – and you know the Tories have lost the plot when even the Heil weighs in against them – the *unt wants us to believe that the information will be valuable for medical research and screening for common diseases.
And an NHS England spokesman told the paper, “The programme will provide vital information to approved organisations about the quality of health services.”
So in fact this information could be used by private health companies as evidence of failures by the National, publicly-funded, service, yes?
How would it help in screening for common diseases? This information becomes freely available without any data having to be sold – how else would we know when an epidemic breaks out?
And how is this valuable for medical research – beyond the possibility that the now-infamous ‘job offer’ for people to take part in human medical experimentation may be targeted at particular individuals, according to medical records that they thought were only available to their own, trusted GP?
Doctors say Mr *unt and NHS England have failed in their duty to publicise the plan in a proper and reasonable way, that patients are not getting an “informed” choice about the matter, and that patients could be identified from the data with any information other than that on common conditions – which, we’ve already established, becomes public knowledge anyway.
Some Local Medical Committees (LMCs) are already discussing whether to opt out of the system – and this blog would urge all the others to do the same.
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