Canberra still in denial over My Health Record concerns

The government is attempting to hose down concerns about the privacy of Australia's centralised digital health records, but their own messaging continues to prove they still don't get it.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The Australian government's response to the grief it's getting over the controversial My Health Record is now up to stage three. Provided you call a PR barrage "bargaining". Which is isn't. No, they're still just getting angry.

The government's denials are several, but they all fall under the broad heading of "denying there's a problem with My Health Record". It's clear that they think it's just a problem with the messaging. If they keep repeating lots of little stories about digital health records being useful, then people's privacy fears will go away.

They won't.

One of the most remarkable denials is still being directed at an obvious reality: that all manner of government agencies can be given access to health records without a warrant. It says so very clearly in section 70 of the My Health Records Act 2012.

Health Minister Greg Hunt's assertion that the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) would never release records without a court order is a policy that can be changed at any time.

But when the highly-respected Parliamentary Library posted an analysis pointing that out, the government complained, and it was quickly replaced with a watered-down version.

Infectious diseases physician Dr Trent Yarwood has compared the two versions, and is concerned about both the change to the analysis, and the process, which he finds "concerning".

"The government is leaning on public servants or journalists who publish unfavourable analysis, surveilling public servants to plug embarrassing leaks, and persecuting whistleblowers. Is it any wonder people aren't very inclined to trust the government when they say 'We won't do anything dodgy with your My Health Record without a court order'?" Yarwood wrote.

The Parliamentary Librarian is a statutory officer, appointed under the Parliamentary Services Act 1999, and is independent from the executive government. For the library's work to be pulled and reshaped is unusual, to say the least. ZDNet understands that a lot of the library's long-term staff are pretty unhappy about it.

The government has started to move on to the anger stage. As usual, the anger comes in the form of sweary phone calls from ministerial advisers. But it seems to me that the government is still in denial about the mounting opposition to My Health Record and the flaws in it.

Five former presidents of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) are demanding the legislation be changed. Former privacy commission Malcolm Crompton has spoken out about the obvious security risks. Experts have pointed out that access by parents undermines teens' rights to medical privacy.

The ADHA's My Health Record Twitter account has been pumping out a stream of positive stories, and links to positive news stories. Perhaps that's to be expected. But they're still missing the core point.

People don't fear that My Health Record won't be useful. They're worried that their medical data might be misused, or involved in a data breach, and they're not satisfied with the answers they're getting.

"People aren't stupid, they know the importance of updated medical information and their inability to remember the minutiae," wrote oncologist Ranjana Srivastava in Guardian Australia on Monday.

"What they object to is being called stupid because they have concerns about the privacy of their data. But these concerns are legitimate."

Srivastava warned of the consequences of health data that could be used in court proceedings and fed to insurance companies, and said we're right to ask why the tax office needs to know about conditions from dementia, to back pain.

"When patients reveal their innermost secrets to a doctor, they trust in the doctor-patient relationship, not in the doctor-patient-government or the doctor-patient-tax office relationship. Still, the accusations of fear-mongering continue," Srivastava added.

She's right, as are the increasing number of doctors saying similar things. The government needs to stop denying the validity of the criticisms.

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