Privacy for prescriptions

The NY TImes has an article on how the information on our prescriptions is “a commodity bought and sold in a murky marketplace, often without the patients’ knowledge or permission.” I was informed by UC Berkeley in the spring that some of my information may have been compromised, although only “Social Security numbers, health insurance information and non-treatment medical information,” and not “diagnoses, treatments and therapies.” But in that case it was theft, not out-and-out sale. The Times article suggests that the new health care bill will tighten up some of the information leakage, but I am unconvinced.

Of more interest is the second half of the article, on privacy in the data mining of medical information, which is a topic which is a strong motivator for some of the research I’m working on now. I’m not too comforted by pronouncements from industry people:

“Data stripped of patient identity is an important alternative in health research and managing quality of care,” said Randy Frankel, an IMS vice president. As for the ability to put the names back on anonymous data, he said IMS has “multiple encryptions and various ways of separating information to prevent a patient from being re-identified”

IMS Health reported operating revenue of $1.05 billion in the first half of 2009, down 10.6 percent from the period a year earlier. Mr. Frankel said he did not expect growing awareness of privacy issues to affect the business.

There’s no incentive to develop real privacy-preservation systems if you make money like that and don’t think that pressure is going to change your model. As far as the vague handwaving of “multiple encryptions and… separating information,” color me unconvinced again.

I think it’s time for a new take on privacy laws and technologies.

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