Mary Dejevsky: Keep your hands off my health records

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To judge by the personal information individuals cheerfully make public about themselves on Facebook and the rest, perhaps all information will eventually be deemed public unless expressly designated private. For the time being, though, the hawking of personal, especially medical, information still has the capacity to shock, and a report on ITV's Tonight programme this week will only have stoked people's worst fears.

It found that when the private London Clinic outsourced the computerisation of medical records to a private company, some of the information was later hawked on-line by Indian information brokers, who had allegedly obtained it – despite punitive confidentiality clauses – from employees of the companies paid to transfer the details from paper to keyboard.

A (relatively) soothing thought might be that the information was only worth something when it pertained to people in the public eye. But you would be wrong if you thought that anonymity ensured protection or that breaches of confidentiality began with the internet – though technology has surely made the whole process much easier.

Years ago, before email or the mobile phone, we had a house fire. In the fullness of time, the engines showed up – not from the fire station two streets away that I eventually ran down to in desperation – but from the station in the next borough. But that's by the by. Within an hour of the fire engines leaving, with part of the roof and the upper storey of the house a wreck, the lower storeys drenched in water, and the gas and electrics shut down, there was a ring on the doorbell.

It was not, this time, a kindly neighbour bearing coffee and biscuits, but someone who said he represented an insurance brokerage, asking whether we were insured. If we weren't, he said, he could probably help us. His was the first of a series of such visits through the day. Someone at the fire station, I assumed, had developed a lucrative sideline, tipping off interested parties.

I was reminded of this again when, after an operation, my husband was prescribed a well-known drug that thins the blood to protect against strokes. Within a few weeks, what should come through the door, but a leaflet – addressed to him by name – saying "We could help YOU avoid a stroke..." It came from a private company which offered "fast, painless, accurate and affordable (my italics) tests", that could show "if you are at risk".

Was this just a chance mailshot? Or was it targeted to individuals whose names had been obtained, or rather – let's not beat about the bush here – bought, from the hospital, the GP's surgery, or the pharmacy? And what sort of impact would this have, say, if you were ill and lived alone? The unauthorised dissemination of private information does not always come via a computer, nor from the careless loss of a disk. All you need is a few corrupt individuals, and there are more of them around than you might think, in places you might never imagine.

The glory days of the battleaxe are almost over

Trust Ann Widdecombe to put a spoke in the well-oiled wheels of David Cameron's machine, and antagonise the remnants of the feminist movement for good measure, by challenging his new faith in all-women shortlists. The redoubtable MP for Maidstone is right, of course, as she so often is. The imperative to fight, fight and fight again produced a vintage crop of female MPs, from the late Barbara Castle, through Shirley Williams and Betty Boothroyd, to Margaret Thatcher. (Yes, sisters, you may not like it, but she was one of them).

All-women shortlists or not, however, those times are drawing to a close. When the new Parliament convenes, many of those whose characters were forged in the furnace of adversity will be gone. The success of the women's movement, and other lobbies for equality, means that the number of battleaxes and mavericks is diminishing. Women politicians have won the dubious right to be as bland and ordinary as so many of the men.

Is there a price for peace?

Do you want to think the unthinkable? Try this. Back in August 2008, 10 French soldiers were killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, France's worst single military death toll for many years. A claim is now doing the rounds, according to which the French were killed because, unlike the Italian contingent that preceded them, they had not paid the Taliban protection money.

This version was roundly denied by Nato, and by the Italian government, which said it had "never authorised nor allowed any form of payment toward members of the Taliban insurgence", adding that it did not know of any payment by the previous government either. But consider this. The Afghan war has so far cost almost 1,400 foreign, and many more Afghan, lives. Many thousands have been maimed. By last summer, the financial cost to Britain – according to a report in this newspaper – had reached £12bn, which equated to £190 for every man, woman and child in the country.

So what if, instead of waging war, we had sought out some reliable power-brokers and paid them to keep al-Qa'ida at bay? Granted, the process might have started by being a bit hit and miss. But this was a recognised way of keeping the peace in the wilder reaches of the Empire. Why try to pacify all of Afghanistan, when all you really want is not to have your World Trade Centre or transport system blown up? To be sure, some things can't be bought with money, but perhaps peace in Afghanistan is something that can.

Daft, but delightful

The excuse is this week's match played by CSKA Moscow and Manchester United on "plastic" grass. But really this picture is for nothing more than your delight and delectation. Spotted in Westminster, parked just around the corner from the Department for Transport, this little car was promoting Easigrass, an artificial turf company.

I have absolutely no commercial or any other interest in promoting them, but simply noted how this singular vehicle drew smiles from everyone who passed it, how children big and small laughed out loud, and how even grown men in dark suits went up to stroke it.

Please, advertising men and women, as the dark days of winter draw on, can we have some more ideas so joyously absurd that they spread some general happiness around the place?

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