Dealing with the culture of secrecy

At the height of the pandemic earlier this year, I clocked a little-noticed remark by that renowned guardian of the people Matt Hancock, when he was announcing a new initiative in the House of Commons. “It is time to get rid of this culture of secrecy,” he said.

Who could disagree? “A culture of secrecy” summons up all kinds of images of dastardly deeds done behind closed doors, without due process of law to redress it. That mental association was, of course, intentional on the part of the Minister, probably getting some guidance from the Behavioural Insights Team. But what the context actually was was the announcement of a provision to make NHS records available, presumably on payment into government coffers, to commercial firms for research or… well, it wasn’t exactly specified. Neither were any controls such as the anonymisation of records, because as far as I know such de-personalised data has long been considered ethically unobjectionable.

So the secrecy in question was, more accurately, the confidentiality of your medical records, if you’re under the care of Britain’s titular deity, the NHS (for whose salvation we are all expected to sacrifice our wealth, liberty and adoration). We are now also, it seems, expected to offer it our personal medical records, too, to dispose of as it wishes.

To an old NHS contractor like me, this is a wonderful fulfillment of prophecy, because I and my colleagues saw it coming decades ago. For during perhaps the last decade of my career in general practice, there was a controversial plan to combine all patient records, whether from general practice or hospitals, into one central database. Like all these plans it failed at the time because of incompetent procurement and development of the software.

But there was a big ethical concern about privacy: was it really safe for the sensitive information shared between me and my GP to be stored on a server based who knows where, and potentially able to be accessed by blackmailers or other miscreants anywhere in the world? Despite the weekly news stories about massive data hacks from government databases, GPs and patients were given assurances that their medical records would be utterly secure, and it went without saying that they would never be used for non-medical purposes.

many of us were unconvinced. Possession is nine parts of the law, and a faceless bureaucracy overseeing 70 million records is not a professional who works directly for the interests of patients he knows personally. The information would belong to the NHS, and not in any real sense to the patient.

Still, we were told, patients who objected to the upload of their data, although spoil-sports who didn’t care about their own health or that of others, could ask their doctor to put a record in the records, and their wishes would be respected.

In the event, as far as I know, the creeping control of the NHS cult over general practice meant that, once they finally sorted out the system, everyone’s records were uploaded en masse, probably together with the useless code for “objection to uploading.” The NHS now owned your records and, in the fullness of time, the Health Secretary sold them on to God knows who for a profit, out of contempt for the “culture of secrecy.” You, of course, were not consulted.

In case you thought at the start of this piece that it was about the reduction of the government cult of secrecy, I have to disillusion you further, although you already know how difficult it has been to get information about who serves on SAGE, what scientific evidence has informed COVID policy, the details of risk assessments, and how riot police manage to track and target serial protesters so efficiently. But here are a couple of examples of how the government views its own transparency.

In 2013, with little fanfare, a law was passed that enables court cases to be held in secret – that is, so secretly that even the accused is not privy to what they have done wrong. The law allows this to be done for any crime from treason to shoplifting. An individual appointed by the court itself to assist the accused may see the evidence, but not thereafter communicate it to the accused, thereby making any meaningful defence impossible. What is more, officials have admitted that courts are predisposed to accept evidence from the government or security services – especially when there is no means to contest it.

The ostensible reason is “state security,” but it has been pointed out that this could include clamping down on cases like that of a Libyan dissident against Colonel Gaddafi. This man had fled the country, but in a period when the West was cozying up to Gaddafi he was kidnapped by the CIA, with the help of MI6, and delivered over to torture and imprisonment in Libya. He survived only because of the fall of Gaddafi, was appointed to the new government, and obtained evidence of the UK’s illegal and immoral involvement from documents retrieved from the old security services. He brought charges against the UK government and, I believe, received compensation. But had he been living in the UK, and the 2013 law in place, he could have been picked up and charged with some trumped up crime, and the truth might never have seen the light of day. It’s not in the interests of national security for MI6 to look like criminals, after all.

Another example to note, in conjunction with this, is that a law has (I believe) been recently passed to allow almost any branch of government to engage in illegal activity (with no specific limitations on the activity) in the pursuit to their aims. From henceforth, animal rights activists made pregnant by relationships with undercover police officers would no longer have any redress. The same would, quite probably, be true of a spy infiltrating a terrorist cell who proved his loyalty be torturing and killing some British citizen. Or of some HMRC breaking into medical records to find tax evasion. That culture of secrecy is fine.

But there is always the Freedom of Information Act to act as a check and a balance. A similar Act in the US has enabled a group called Judicial Watch to penetrate secrets that were embarrassing to corrupt state institutions, including those trying to cover up Hilary Clinton’s e-mails. Tony Blair says his biggest regret was passing that Act, but he needn’t have worried. It appears that a special unit has been set up in the mushrooming cabinet office (did you know it has 7,000 staff – no wonder government can manage perfectly well without the elected house now), whose specific purpose is to prevent or delay Freedom of Information applications about matters they might prefer to keep… well, surely not secret, because as we all know it’s time to get rid of the culture of secrecy.

Though as we have seen, that only refers to the legitimate privacy of ordinary people. Have you downloaded your tracking app yet?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Dealing with the culture of secrecy

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    When the Protect Scotland tracking app became available some months ago I, rather naively, downloaded it and switched it on. It made some kind of sense to be warned if I came into contact with a COVID-19 sufferer.
    In retrospect I wish I hadn’t. I’ve switched it off now (or that’s what it tells me), but I can’t help feeling a tinge paranoid about the possibility that my phone is now ‘bugged’ (or, should I say, ‘more bugged’ than it was before).

    Last Sunday the church group I belong to all dutifully switched off their phones before they attended the morning meeting. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but it made sense to us to limit the potential for unwarranted snooping by someone, somewhere, not least because we hear regular and increasing reports of officious and intrusive interventions into people’s private lives by ‘COVID Wardens’ and the Police.

    Someone in the church meeting suggested that we could not rule out our mobile phones giving off a tracking signal even when they are switched off. It seems unlikely, but since it is probably technologically possible, I couldn’t rule it out. It’s a sad reflection on the state of the world that we are even thinking about such things.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      According to Edward Snowden the possibility of an actively traceable phone whilst switched off is real: he describes how the network has to be ready to deliver a message to your phone, out of all those in the world, the moment you switch it back on. How does it know about that?

      Of course, it’s paranoid to think of some COVID warden having access to such information now (whereas the tracking app is designed to tell where you’ve been). But it might become very relevant if we do reach a situation where the state might find useful to be able to pin a few illicit meetings on someone they want to target.

      All phone records are legally kept for a year – we have only the government’s word for it that they are destroyed thereafter rather than diverted, like our NHS records, to some Cambridge-Analytica type organisation.

      One point I didn’t realise, as a non-phone owner, is how it’s impossible to check whether a program has been truly deleted. At least on a PC – especially a Linux PC – you can go looking. Out of interest, Icheck my PC now and find that the program I downloaded to clone my new hard drive, and then put in the cupboard, is using 40,528K of my memory. Why? Well, it won’t do it any more (click).

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Further along the trajectory – Matt Hancock and the government, without consulting Parliament, has made regulations to allow the police to access personal patient data, presumably to know which patients are supposed to be self-isolating and aren’t. It would also allow then to check who and who has not been vaccinated, should that be necessary.

    I can remember, even when I was police surgeon and force medical officer, turning aside requests from the police for patient information even in the case of the real crimes we use to have back in those days. We insisted on proper procedure, in the most serious cases.

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