Kurt's Blog

December 8, 2015

Sensitive Data Privacy Protection in the German Medical Industry

Filed under: Stories — Tags: , , — Kurt Häusler @ 1:10 pm


A few years ago I was involved in developing an image database for the medical industry. It was mostly used by skin doctors. I remember having to test and analyze errors in the software by debugging and clicking through real databases sent in by our customers. I was exposed to both images, and highly sensitive medical information as well as identifying information such as names and addresses of patients. Some of these images included naked full body images (used for tracking new moles over time) of both adults and children as well as close-ups including genitalia, usually with medical ailments such as sexually transmitted diseases. Once again, not just of adults. I remember discussing whether there was some way to improve the software so that we could protect people’s privacy (I did not know much about the privacy laws at the time, but was certain that doctors should have insisted on NOT sending us such databases) but this was not prioritized at the time. Some of these databases came from the town I lived in, and the summary list contained surnames I recognized so I decided not to analyze this database. The experience made me concerned about my own privacy in connection with the medical industry. Thankfully I don’t have any interesting items in my medical history, but it is disturbing to know that if I did, the industry would not take my rights or the law as seriously as they should. This was one of, but not the major, reason why I decided to leave this company.

The last time I went to my current doctor for a regular checkup I sat in and waited for him.The screen on his desktop was only slightly angled towards his side, so I was once again confronted with sensitive information that I knew was legally protected.

Today I came back from getting a vaccination. I was asked to sit in the lab for about 5 minutes and wait. Once again was the same screen I saw at my previous visit. The top panel contained the name, address and medical insurance information of a patient, and the bottom panel contained the current relevant medical details about the patient including existing conditions, medications, reasons for visits, and personal observations. Once again, I felt bad for the patient, but also bad that someone else might get to see my (fortunately boring) medical history.

The EUs Data Protection Directive allows businesses to collect this information, but obliges them to prevent such data from being exposed to unauthorized third parties without consent.

I mentioned this to both employees, and got disturbingly dismissive answers such as “yeah unfortunately we just do not have the room”, to my comment “you know this is illegal right”. I mentioned to the other employee that it would probably be ok to lock the screen or switch it off every time you leave the room, but she didn’t know if that was possible and blamed it on patients that make an appointment but never turn up.

I am not a lawyer but as far as I know medical data is especially protected. I don’t know if this means jail time for the doctors, nurses and receptionists involved, or just a financial slap on the hand, but I would be interested in knowing.

This is not a name and shame post, as the problem is certainly widespread, but I think the medical industry should definitely consider this a shame post. From what I know in the financial services industry, they take such matters much more seriously. This is probably because banks etc have a very long relationship with the IT industry, who seem to be taking the lead in helping customers implement privacy control, but the medical industry seems to have always felt less comfortable with IT in general and possibly hasn’t been exposed to such ideas as much.

Part of me however thinks I probably should report this. I don’t know. If this is a jailable offence it is probably just as bad to ignore it as any murder or rape. If it is merely a fineable offence, then I would rather stay out of any direct involvement.

The lesson for me is probably just be very careful about how willing I should be to let my doctor be involved any sensitive medical issues, without specific provable assurances that my privacy will be protected. If that makes it sound like I don’t trust them, then that is because I unfortunately cannot. I don’t think you should either, not at the moment at least.


August 15, 2012

A Story About a Dance

Filed under: Stories — Tags: , , , — Kurt Häusler @ 2:48 pm

One evening at the village dance, the new girl in town shows up and stands around weirdly for a bit. She is determined to get to know people and integrate as quickly as possible so she musters up the courage to approach the handsome guy in the corner and ask him for a dance. Now this requires a fair bit of courage, in this old-fashioned village it seems customary for the dudes to ask the ladies to dance. But she’s bored, and feeling uncomfortable about standing around doing nothing, so she goes for it. She approaches him timidly and says “hey would you like to dance?” She doesn’t know what to expect, she doesn’t know if he likes to dance, or the music, or even her, but she has just enough confidence to see herself as a sufficiently good dancer so she goes for it.

The dude replies “Hmm I dunno, can you first describe your moves to me?”. Hmm not exactly the level of excitement she was hoping for, but she obliges, and describes how she likes to dance. “Hmm could be interesting. Can you show me the moves?” he replies. She thinks to herself, well look if we can just dance you will see, you don’t get an accurate impression about how I dance with other people by looking at me dancing by myself. But she obliges. She is a little embarrassed to be standing in front of the dude dancing by herself, but he asked, and she doesn’t have anything better to do.

Then he shakes his head and says “no that is not how I like it sorry. I would like a sexy dance, something with a bit more visible flesh, and thrusting, something less wholesome, but something that will attract a lot of attention”. She thinks to herself, you know, that is not really how I dance, I have my way, I think it is a good way, and there are enough people doing sexy dances already, but I guess, if that is what he wants… So she tells him “ok, I will try and come up with a sexy dance, it is not really my thing though, but I think I can do it”. 

So she goes back to her family over on the other side of the dancing room, and thinks a bit, and can’t really think of any sexy dances, and isn’t particularly interested any more anyway. He didn’t seem that interested in her either. She keeps it in the back of her mind, but eventually starts chatting to some of the other girls and forgets about the dude.

Next minute the dude comes over, with an attitude, yelling to her Father as much as to her, “I asked you for a sexy dance, you promised me one, and you haven’t given me one! What’s up?”.

Basically dudes, if a girl comes up and asks for a dance, just decide. Yes or no. Give her a go, chances are, if she was able to muster up the courage to ask, she probably isn’t that bad a dancer. She at least seems motivated enough to dance with you which is a good sign. If she really does turn out to be a bad dancer, big deal. You don’t have to dance with her again, if it is really bad you might even be able to break it off half way through. But don’t put the poor girl through the wringer. Don’t grill her on whether she meets your standards or not. She was just making a friendly offer! And if you feel like she is not the type of dance you are looking for, if you think she isn’t sexy enough, just say no and dance with one of the many sexier dancers at the dance!

And if you act so disinterested, grill her and demand she acts differently, and she goes away to consider your request, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t come running excitedly back to you. And chasing her up and acting like she promised you something, when she actually offered something that you refused, just makes you look like a dick. And she sure isn’t going to offer anything again! Maybe she was also a good cook, or plays a mean guitar? You will never know.

And ladies, have some self-respect! If the dude can’t make his mind up, if he wants to put you through the wringer, prove yourself, or be something you aren’t or do something you don’t feel comfortable with then screw him! Make the offer, and if he doesn’t accept walk away. And don’t offer him anything again. There are plenty of other dudes who will appreciate you for who you are, and how you dance.

It is just simple trust and respect.

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