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Wednesday, November 01, 2006 

Data rape.

Of all this government's attacks on civil liberties, the most dangerous appears to be yet to come. The horrendously expensive, ridiculously unnecessary central NHS database being supplied by iSoft (who have had to be bailed out by the government already, after their accounts were exposed as being imaginative to say the least) is finally getting ready to start up. As the Grauniad reports, it seems likely that cradle-to-grave medical records are going to be uploaded to it, which up to 250,000 NHS staff will have access to. The police and security services are already itching to get at this information.

Millions of personal medical records are to be uploaded regardless of patients' wishes to a central national database from where information can be made available to police and security services, the Guardian has learned.

Details of mental illnesses, abortions, pregnancy, HIV status, drug-taking, or alcoholism may also be included, and there are no laws to prevent DNA profiles being added. The uploading is planned under Whitehall's bedevilled £12bn scheme to computerise the health service.

The health department's IT agency has made it clear that the public will not be able to object to information being loaded on to the database: "Patients will have data uploaded ... Patients do not have the right to say the information cannot be held."

Once the data is uploaded, the onus is on patients to speak out if they do not want their records seen by other people. If they do object, an on-screen "flag" will be added to their records. But any objection can be overridden "in the public interest".

Harry Cayton, a key ministerial adviser, warned last month of "considerable pressure to obtain access to [the] data from ... police and immigration services", but he is confident that these demands can be resisted by his department.

Although data protection laws supposedly ban unnecessary build-ups of computer information, patients will get no right to choose whether their history is put on the Spine. Once uploading has taken place, a government PR blitz will follow. This will be said to bring about "implied consent" to allow others view the data. Those objecting will be told that their medical care could suffer.

The government claims that computerised "sealed envelopes" will allow patients selectively to protect sensitive parts of their uploaded history from being widely accessed. But no such software is yet in existence. It is being promised for an unspecified date. Some doctors say "sealed envelopes" may be too complex to be workable. The design also allows NHS staff to "break the seal" under some circumstances. Police will be able to seek data, including on grounds of national security. Government agencies can get at records, according to the health department, if "the interests of the general public are thought to be of greater importance than your confidentiality". Examples given of such cases include "serious crime and national security".


An American PR firm, Porter Novelli, has been awarded £1m contract and has already drafted publicity to persuade patients not to object to the new plans. But the health department refuses to disclose the text of these leaflets.

It has, however, drawn up a public care records guarantee. This states: "The new system will hold records about your care in a national computer system." It warns: "Preventing us from sharing information may make diagnosis difficult and treatment dangerous and could prevent research." The guarantee does not detail exactly what information could end up on the Spine.

This is of course the same government that is getting ready to greatly curtail the Freedom of Information Act, only introduced at the beginning of last year. While they're trying to reduce the annual costs of that bill, which amounts to around £34 million, they're going to give a cool £1 million to a PR firm to persuade you not to give your private medical information to a wide-open database.

Most frightening of all though is what we've already seen happening in the tabloid press of late. The leaks from the police, especially in terrorist cases, have smeared the suspects before they've even been charged with anything. The News of the Screws' royal editor was arrested earlier in the year after he allegedly had been hacking into the voice mail of Prince William, with stories appearing in the paper that could only have been obtained through surveillance. A previous report by Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, titled What Price Privacy? exposed how private investigators, used as middlemen for tabloid journalists, had been bugging targets and selling information from the police database as intermediaries for the police themselves. The "Spine" database is going to give hundreds of thousands more people access to highly sensitive information that tabloid journalists will love to have; we can certainly not just rely on the integrity and honesty of staff, especially those on relatively poor wages. This could result not just in a brisk trade in information on celebrities, but on anyone who suddenly enters the public eye. Simple personal snooping is also inevitable.

Doubtless the government line will once again be that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, parroted by the same tabloids who will hugely benefit from such a gaping database. Anyone that has lived an even slightly interesting life has something they are deeply embarrassed about, which they endlessly regret and would like to change if they could do so. This is the exact sort of information that would be stored on the "Spine". The irony is that as mentioned above, the government deeply fears what might be exposed via the FoI act, the real reason behind the expected draconian limitations to be placed on it. With ID cards meant to be introduced within years, government committees recommending the placing of thousands more cameras to catch "reckless" drivers, and the crackdowns on the right to protest, Britain increasingly seems to be a society where you're guilty until proved innocent and a suspect, not a citizen.

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I am verry concerned because of the implications for people with a mental ilness. www.ticketytock.org

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