NHS database vulnerable to hackers, insider threat

News by Doug Drinkwater

The National Health Service has admitted that patient confidentiality could potentially be undermined under its new centralised patient database system.

That was the conclusion from the NHS' own risk analysis into the new care.data database, which is set to be rolled out in March after almost two years of security and privacy concerns.

The Telegraph newspaper claims to have seen the risk analysis document, and this supposedly details that the database – which will be controlled by the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) - could be vulnerable to hacks and leaks from those working within the NHS.

The risk assessment was carried out by NHS England and it warns that, despite HSCIC's claims that data is “anonymised ” or pseudonymised, patients could be “re-identified” if database data, which is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998 and Information Security management NHS Code of Practise, is combined with other information. 

“While there is a privacy risk that the analysts granted access to these pseudonymised flows could potentially re-identify patients maliciously by combining the pseudonymised data with other available datasets (a technique known as a jigsaw attack) such an attack would be illegal and would be subject to sanction by the Information Commissioner's Office,” reads the report.


It continues that patients worried about confidentiality could eventually decide to withhold data on past and present illnesses, resulting in a reduction in the quality of care and the quality of data held by the database.


“This risk is two-fold; firstly, patients will not receive optimal healthcare if they withhold information from the clinicians that are treating them; and secondly, that this loss of trust degrades the quality of data.”

The idea of a national patient ‘portal' was first proposed in 2012 under the initial premise that all NHS patients would have secure online access to their personal health records by 2015. The aim, as well as improving patient accessibility, was also to enhance healthcare and medical research.

Leaflets, informing patients about the database, went out in January and the database is due to start collecting patient records from hospitals and GPs from March.

Despite the project being two years in the making, security, privacy and even logistical concerns have dogged its progress in recent times. Information security experts believe that the database will be hard to roll-out, implement and also be vulnerable to attack, while there have been concerns about the possibility of data being sold to third-parties.

The possibility of a data breach is particularly apt, not least considering recent figures suggest that more than two million serious data  breaches – from within the NHS – have been logged since the start of 2011. Chris McIntosh, CEO of ViaSat UK, believes that the NHS needs to put security safeguards in place if they're to avoid big fines from the ICO.

“Moving patient data to a centralised database naturally has its risks and while information needs to be useable it also needs to be secure since health records will inevitably be seen as a lucrative target for hackers,” McIntosh told SCMagazineUK.com

“Sensitive information like this can be used by malicious parties for blackmail and extortion both now and even years down the line. As such, the NHS needs to be doing all it can to ensure it has all the safeguards in place, both for the sake of public trust, and to avoid the risk of fines from bodies like the ICO. 

“In order to avoid fines worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in the future, the NHS needs to ensure that all the information in its new database is encrypted, and patient confidentiality is preserved as we move into the age of digital health services.”


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