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One in four people support widening access to health data


Improving services could be possible using more health data, but is it a slippery slope towards further erosion of privacy?

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a significant uptick in the amount of health data being accessed by authorities to plan the world’s response to the deadly virus – but new polling exclusively for CyberNews indicates that people are willing to sacrifice privacy post-pandemic.

One in four people in the UK say they would be supportive of an expanded use of healthcare data beyond that already used by the country’s National Health Service (NHS) during the coronavirus pandemic. The survey, which was statistically represented and polled a group of 1,290 people representative of the UK population, was conducted after a lawsuit by campaign group Open Democracy warned that monitoring was trying to be snuck through the back door.

The UK NHS and Palantir, the American big data company that was founded following support from the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, entered into an agreement in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Palantir created a data store where it used “pseudonymised, anonymised or aggregated” healthcare data to try and plan how best to respond to the unfolding coronavirus crisis.

Palantir’s agreement extended

In December, the UK government extended its contract with Palantir, and also broadened the reasons for which it may try to use or access healthcare data. The BBC report that includes “Brexit, NHS workforce plans, and general government business.”

In its lawsuit, Open Democracy claimed that widening access to healthcare data was “mission creep” beyond the requirements needed for the pandemic, and should not be allowed – thus why it sued the government.

The UK health secretary has, since 2002, been given the right to access and use healthcare data in order to respond to health emergencies. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the regulations giving him this right were triggered – though they have been multiple times in the past. What’s different this time is the suggestion that this kind of personal data could be used in a non-crisis or emergency situation post-pandemic.

It all seems like something people would be naturally opposed to. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the calculus around civil liberties, according to polling conducted between 2-4 April, after the news of the Palantir legal case broke.

One in four support use of health data

When told that the NHS currently uses anonymised, aggregated health data to plan its covid response, and now plans to use the data for other reasons – though some call it mission creep – the British public said they still supported the idea. Around one in four people said they were strongly or somewhat supportive of the concept of extending the use of health data beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

Only 15% of people were unsupportive of extending the use of health data to reasons beyond fighting the coronavirus crisis, while roughly the same proportion of people were agnostic: they were neither supportive nor unsupportive.

A further staggering 47% of people didn’t know whether they would support it or not – indicating a significant proportion of the population are undecided about whether it’s a good thing or not.

Between vaccine passports, biometric data to aid tracking and tracing of positive cases, and the impingement of rolling lockdowns on countries, it appears that the pandemic has had more than a long-lasting effect on the world’s public health. It is also changing their attitudes towards how their data is used, and for what purposes – and their comfort about how much information they are willing to give up in order to support the public good.

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