Catching up: open health data privacy risk exposed, WA reform blueprint drops

By Stephen Easton

Monday January 8, 2018

A couple of very interesting and important stories unfolded in late 2017 and early 2018.

Medicare re-identification another blow to open data

Information security researchers have once again demonstrated that de-identification can often be undone. The clever cryptographers were able to re-identify individual citizens in supposedly anonymised records released by the federal Department of Health as open data.

Federal information commissioner Timothy Pilgrim issued a brief statement saying he is still investigating an earlier issue as demonstrated by the researchers in September 2016 and will make a public statement when he is finished. In the meantime, Pilgrim also pointed to the recent De-identification Decision-Making Framework.

The Australian Privacy Foundation, however, doesn’t think Pilgrim’s office is doing enough about the issue. Yesterday, it published a scathing statement criticising both government data custodians for either lacking expertise or being careless, and Pilgrim’s office for taking too long and telling the public too little in its response:

“A ‘Trust me, I’m from the government!’ approach is a recipe for pain.”

The three PhD-qualified experts — Vanessa Teague, Chris Culnane and Ben Rubenstein — published their latest report on December 18. They recap how this builds on their previous efforts:

“In late 2016, doctors’ identities were decrypted in an open dataset of Australian medical billing records. Now patients’ records have also been re-identified – and we should be talking about it.”

They reported this new issue to the Department of Health in 2016, but went public with the findings to nudge people in government to take the issue more seriously and consider whether the risks of full open sharing of potentially sensitive data can in fact be managed without destroying its utility.

“Our motive is to inform government policy with a demonstration of the surprising ease with which de-identification can fail,” the researchers wrote.

Technology reporter Ben Grubb reported the implications and gathered some early reactions for the Sydney Morning Herald.

While we’re talking about data…

The digital transformation mini-portfolio within the Prime Minister’s department has published another of its Tech Talks on YouTube about data integration.

This time, former Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor — now the Minister for Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity — chats with the chief economist from the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Mark Cully about “innovative and secure data integration” that mostly involves information about businesses rather than individuals.

Western Australia’s public sector reform blueprint

The huge Western Australian Service Priority Review report dropped on December 6 with 17 recommendations and 37 suggested “actions” for a more efficient government and Premier Mark McGowan says he “broadly” supports the whole lot.

The review panel released an interim report in August showing which way they were heading and the final report suggests a move to performance pay instead of the drastic pay cuts for public service leaders that McGowan has previously threatened.

According to the premier’s statement, the key recommendations are:

  • Introducing whole-of-government targets to focus government agencies on the most complex and critical issues facing the community;
  • Developing and implementing CEO performance-based remuneration and improved CEO performance management;
  • Leveraging government procurement to reduce costs and improve outcomes for the community, including positive job creation benefits;
  • Preparing ‘umbrella’ legislation to reform governance, accountability and oversight of Government Trading Enterprises to improve transparency and service delivery;
  • Data-sharing legislation to facilitate increased data-sharing and smarter use of data to respond to community needs and to improve service delivery;
  • Digital transformation to enable citizens to access government through multiple channels; and
  • Strengthening the budget process to encourage a more collaborative government and focus on community outcomes.

McGowan said his government were on track to have 40% fewer government departments and a 20% cut to the the number of Senior Executive Service positions early this year. The relatively new premier expects to have shed 102 SES jobs by March.

“This report provides a strong blueprint to drive cultural change and create a more efficient public sector at a lower cost to taxpayers, delivering on key election commitments,” he said.

“The government supports the overall direction of the report and will move to begin an implementation program starting next year.

“It’s important to note that the review found WA’s public servants to possess professionalism, integrity and a genuine desire to help the community — and this is something we want to build on.”

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