November 21, 1997
Computer links threaten privacy
Protection of medical records feared a
You own a small business and work like a
At your annual medical checkup, the doctor
has some scary news.
She warns you to slow down and take better
care of yourself, or you could be heading
toward a heart attack.
It's a wakeup call; but the real slap in
the face comes a few days later when the
bank calls in your loan because you're now
a bad health risk.
Welcome to the brave new world of
electronic marketing and Ontario Health
Information Processing, OHIP for short.
Sound far-fetched? Could never happen,
Wrong, say doctors and privacy experts.
This column previously looked at
``marketing assassins'' who use the power
of technology to cross-index computer
databases so you and your buying habits
are within their cross-hairs.
The power of new technologies offers the
potential for some to go much further than
tracking just your shopping and spending.
``Even now we sign away our rights to
medical privacy when we go for insurance
or into hospital,'' says Dr. Gordon
Atherley, of the Canadian Healthcare
Business Development Institute and former
president of the Canadian Centre for
Occupational Health and Safety.
But doctors typically use their discretion
on what is relevant when releasing your
medical records to third parties, Atherley
says, adding that having all your records
in some computer database somewhere
``Unlike a paper report, an electronic
health record would likely contain
everything about us.
So, if it goes to third parties, they
could very well add two and two and make
In fact, section 5.4 of the Canadian
Bankers Association Privacy Model Code
acknowledges ``each bank will collect
health records only for specific
purposes'' and will not trade that
information with subsidiaries or
The bankers code is voluntary, not binding
in a legal sense.
How do you know that with easy-to-access
computer databases the banks won't do
routine semi-annual checks on your health
records as the information goes online?
Technology is giving more and more folks
at banks, insurance companies,
pharmaceutical firms, even direct
marketers, the power to access personal
information that was once private.
Hear the one about the woman who stopped
filling her prescription for birth control
bills? Not long after that the sales
pitches for baby carriages, cribs and
Where there's profit, there's a way.
``There's not much economic value in
protecting privacy in the sense you can't
make money by keeping medical records
private,'' says David Jones, a computer
science professor at McMaster University
in Hamilton and president of Electronic
``But you can profit by opening the
records up and selling the information.''
The lack of public outcry for tougher laws
to guard things like medical records
worries the Privacy Commissioner of
``The prospect of greatly expanded
collection and sharing of personal medical
information sets privacy alarms ringing,''
writes Bruce Phillips in his 1997 annual
Having medical information in an
electronic format offers two big
advantages: In an emergency, it could save
lives if doctors have access to records
with the touch of a keyboard.
Lack of public outcry for
tough laws to guard
medical data worries
As well, cutting all the paper shuffling
could save taxpayers lots of money in the
health-care system, in treatment and
For those reasons, the federal government
will spend $50 million to set up a
Canadian Health Information System and
similar networks are planned for the
provinces to put medical records into
But Ottawa is also talking about
cross-indexing these health databases with
those of income, employment and
Who will have access to the databases? As
Ottawa contracts out the data entry
service, will there be iron-clad
guarantees that third parties don't get
access to personal medical records?
Nobody can argue that giving doctors and
nurses instant access to medical records
is not good.
It is when the information moves out of
their hands to third parties that it
``There's no technical limit to record
linking, which means that there could be
nothing private left about your life,''
``It's government - not technology - that
has the power to protect our privacy,'' he
Phillips, who has been pushing for a
national privacy standard, agrees and in
an interview says governments are not
Why are Canadians not putting pressure on
our lawmakers to protect vital private
information in the age of the Internet?
``Unless people feel personal pain, they
tend not to notice things. It's viewed as
a nuisance,'' Phillips says.
``But if it was only a nuisance, I
wouldn't get so worked up about it.''
Robert Brehl is The Star's
telecommunications reporter. He can be
reached at email@example.com, fax (416)
865-3630, or write to Robert Brehl, Your
Business, The Toronto Star, 1 Yonge St.,
Toronto, M5E 1E6.
Contents copyright =A9 1996, 1997,
The Toronto Star.