Healthcare Consent and its Discontents (Part 3 of 3)

The previous section of this article rated the pros and cons of new approaches to patient consent and control over data. Here we’ll look at emerging risks.

Privacy solidarity

Genetics present new ethical challenges–not just in the opportunity to change genes, but even just when sequencing them. These risks affect not only the individual: other members of her family and ethnic group can face discrimination thanks to genetic weaknesses revealed. Isaac Kohane said that the average person has 40 genetic markers indicating susceptibility to some disease or other. Furthermore, we sometimes disagree on what we consider a diseased condition.

Big data, particularly with genomic input, can lead to group harms, so Brent Mittelstadt called for moving beyond an individual view of privacy. Groups also have privacy needs (a topic I explored back in 1998). It’s not enough for an individual to consider the effect of releasing data on his own future, but on the future of family members, members of his racial group, etc. Similarly, Barbara Evans said we have to move from self-consciousness to social consciousness. But US and European laws consider privacy and data protection only on the basis of the individual.

The re-identification bogey man

A good many references were made at the conference to the increased risk of re-identifying patients from supposedly de-identified data. Headlines are made when some researcher manages to uncover a person who thought himself anonymous (and who database curators thought was anonymous when they released their data sets). In a study conducted by a team that included speaker Catherine M. Hammack, experts admitted that there is eventually a near 100% probability of re-identifying each person’s health data. The culprit in all this is burgeoning set of data collected from people as they purchase items and services, post seemingly benign news about themselves on social media, and otherwise participate in modern life.

I think the casual predictions of the end of anonymity we hear so often are unnecessarily alarmist. The field of anonymity has progressed a great deal since Latanya Sweeney famously re-identified a patient record for Governor William Weld of Massachusetts. Re-identifications carried out since then, by Sweeney and others, have taken advantage of data that was not anonymized (people just released it with an intuitive assumption that they could not be re-identified) or that was improperly anonymized, not using recommended methods.

Unfortunately, the “safe harbor” in HIPAA (designed precisely for medical sites lacking the skills to de-identify data properly) enshrines bad practices. Still, in a HIPAA challenge cited by Ameet Sarpatwari,only two of 15,000 individuals were re-identified. The mosaic effect is still more of a theoretical weakness, not an immediate threat.

I may be biased, because I edited a book on anonymization, but I would offer two challenges to people who cavalierly dismiss anonymization as a useful protection. First, if we threw up our hands and gave up on anonymization, we couldn’t even carry out a census, which is mandated in the U.S. Constitution.

Second, anonymization is comparable to encryption. We all know that computer speeds are increasing, just as are the sophistication of re-identification attacks. The first provides a near-guarantee that, eventually, our current encrypted conversations will be decrypted. The second, similarly, guarantees that anonymized data will eventually be re-identified. But we all still visit encrypted web sites and use encryption for communications. Why can’t we similarly use the best in anonymization?

A new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association exposes a gap between what doctors consider adequate consent and what’s meaningful for patients, blaming “professional indifference” and “organizational inertia” for the problem. In research, the “reasonable-patient standard” is even harder to define and achieve.

Patient consent doesn’t have to go away. But it’s getting harder and harder for patients to anticipate the uses of their data, or even to understand what data is being used to match and measure them. However, precisely because we don’t know how data will be used or how patients can tolerate it, I believe that incremental steps would be most useful in teasing out what will work for future research projects.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.