ADHA privacy boss reportedly quits as My Health Record faces first big test

(Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The director of privacy at the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA), which runs the My Health Record system, resigned last month over privacy concerns, according to a report by Fairfax Media. While the director, Nicole Hunt, declined to comment, two sources close to her “confirmed that she had left the business out of frustration that privacy and security concerns her team had raised with senior management were often ignored”, Fairfax wrote. The report added that privacy staff and experts had not had their advice listened to, which is part of a pattern of not listening at senior levels at ADHA and within Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office.

The ADHA said that it did not comment on staffing matters, and refused to confirm whether Ms Hunt had left the agency. Meanwhile, the health minister and the ADHA have refused to give an update on how many Australians have opted out of the system. The last figure was given on October 24, when a Senate committee was told that 1,147,000 people had opted out by October 19.

Government circles the wagons

So not only is the government not listening, it’s not talking, either, despite the obvious importance of this multibillion-dollar program.

The strategy seems to be to circle the wagons and tough it out. How effective will this strategy be? We’ll find out on Tuesday, when the first batch of legislative amendments, intended to increase privacy, is scheduled to be debated in the Senate.

The My Health Records Amendment (Strengthening Privacy) Bill 2018 [PDF] tightens what was seen as overly broad access for law enforcement, and would ensure that health records are deleted when an individual requests it.

Labor has described these amendments as woefully inadequate. Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has introduced an amendment [PDF] that would return My Health Record to a voluntary opt-in model, something the government has steadfastly refused to do. The government is also refusing to extend the opt-out period beyond this Thursday.

So if the Senate passes the Strengthening Privacy Bill with amendments, the House of Representatives doesn’t sit until 26 November, and the laws won’t be in place in time. Di Natale has separately moved a motion to “extend or suspend the opt-out period until the legislation and any amendments are passed, outstanding privacy and security concerns are addressed, and public confidence in this important reform is restored”. Apart from all that, a more comprehensive set of amendments will soon follow.

Government ignoring Senate recommendations

Last month, a separate Senate inquiry made 14 recommendations, including that access controls be applied by default, and for stronger restrictions on using My Health Record data for secondary uses, commercial purposes, employment or insurance purposes, or to enable the government to recoup revenue.

It also recommended extending the current opt-out period for a further 12 months. In response, the government last week announced a second round of changes, including increased penalties for improper use of My Health Record data, a ban on data being used for employment purposes, and better privacy protection in cases of domestic violence. The government response skipped over key structural issues, however.

It’s blocking every attempt to return to an opt-in model, or even to fix the access controls. As this writer has said previously, the government’s argument against reverting to an opt-in model is little more than a political-party sulk. Labor, the Greens, and some minority party Senators are all critical of the My Health Record system for a variety of reasons.

Tuesday’s debate over the Strengthening Privacy Bill is likely to be contentious. As for the second Bill, a more complex batch of amendments we have yet to see in any draft legislation. Even if this Bill is introduced to the Senate this week — as of this writing, it wasn’t on the program — it cannot be passed through the House of Representatives before late November.

The Senate also has the option of referring the legislation to committee. Given the opposition and cross-bench concerns, this is likely. That process would take at least two or three weeks, if it happens, and with Parliament’s last sitting day scheduled for December 6, it would be impossible to enact the laws before the end of the year.

In summary, then, the government is asking us to decide on something as important as a digital health record, after which it will change the rules. That highlights its complete contempt for us as citizens. “Trust us, we’re the government” simply isn’t good enough.

Australians have until this Thursday to opt out.

I recommend you do so.

You can always choose to opt in later, once you’ve had a chance to discuss the pros and cons with your GP.

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