The Sketch: Are our patient records safe in their hands? Just ask the database...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Databases epitomise everything that's wrong with modern administration. In Health questions Andrew MacKay asked that nice Ben Bradshaw about the security of the national collection of information that is called Connecting for Health or Choose 'n' Book or the Spine.

It's the internetting of patient records to allow easier access by doctors, surgeons, nurses, administrators, statisticians, hospital cleaners and men in car parks who find our most private – not to say most disgusting – details on a memory stick. That was what MacKay was asking. Hardly a week goes by without some serious breach of data protection, he said, so what assurance do we have that this project will be any different?

It's a question worth asking because the information in our medical records is different in kind from identity data. Nicholas Winterton told us that publication of individual details could seriously affect a person's career. It was hard not to imagine what anxiety was lurking under his respectable front. "What if my medical records were published and people were to discover I have a grossly distended sense of self esteem? An engorged organ of self-importance? What if it were revealed to the public that my sense of humour was amputated after an accident with a leaf-blower?" We would never look at him in the same way.

Ben – and I can't imagine that he'd view publication of his own records with equanimity – said that there was an extremely high level of security in the Spine (billed as an electronic care record for all England's 50 million-plus patients) and that computer-based systems were "much more secure than paper-based systems".

It isn't true. All the big leaks have been downloads. You can't carry 25 million sets of paper-based personal welfare records out of the office without the help of a forklift.

The more professionals rely on mass data, the less attention is paid to personal circumstances. Koestler described the state's definition of an individual as a million people divided by a million.

So distance surveillance and electronic monitoring and data crunching and probability tests on risk indicators... they all vulgarise our reactions and tempt us away from looking at each other with that close personal curiosity that can reveal what is really going on.