Oz e-health privacy: after a breach is too late

Privacy foundation slams 'dangerously naive' Senators

Australia's peak privacy body has lambasted the country's Senate for being ignorant about the implications of the country's new e-health records.

What was once called the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR), re-branded My Health Record this year to give it a smiley face, is the government's attempt to dragoon Australians into a national health database.

Looking behind the mask, however, the Australian Privacy Foundation reckons the e-health system looks more like it was designed for spooks and revenue-collectors than for doctors or patients.

Coming in for special criticism is the Senate committee recommendation (full report here) that My Health Record be changed from an opt-in system to an opt-out system. That decision seems designed to boost the chronically low take-up of a system that this year got a budget allocation of more than AU$450 million (its 15-year estimated cost from 2010 to 2025 is $3.6 billion).

In a letter sent to the Senate as well as to the media, signed by chair of the APF's Health Sub-committee Bernard Robertson-Dunn, the group calls the Senate committee that's signed off on the opt-out provisions “dangerously naïve.”

It says the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs' recommendation that My Health Record be opt-out creates a honeypot of data that can't be protected merely by criminal sanctions on its abuse.

“The PCEHR is accessible in multiple ways, including over the Internet. The first line of defence should be highly effective systemic controls backed up by civil and criminal penalties.

“Relying primarily on penalties overlooks the fact that they are totally ineffective against criminals and cyber-terrorists operating overseas. Once a breach has occurred, the data cannot be put back in the box. Once an identity is used fraudulently, the damage is done.”

For that reason, Robertson-Dunn writes, a reliance on criminal and civil penalties is “patently absurd”.

The APF says the entire e-health strategy needs to be re-evaluated, and the record re-designed to be “functional, secure and useful”.

“There is not a full appreciation of, and learning from, the complexities and risks associated with National E-Health Systems which have run massively over budget or simply failed in many countries over the last decade,” the letter notes.

As an IT project, the PCEHR has had a troubled history. In 2012, trials stalled because of software incompatibilities in the system, and later that year it was revealed that the Accenture-built system couldn't handle names with apostrophes (O'Dwyer for example).

It suffered data-leak bugs in 2014, one occurring because Accenture had made a hash of avoiding name-collisions in the system. ®

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