Medical Privacy and Big Data: A Further Reason in Favour of Public Universal Healthcare Coverage

In T. C. de Campos, J. Herring & A. M. Phillips (eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Medical Law. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. pp. 306-318 (2019)
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Most people are completely oblivious to the danger that their medical data undergoes as soon as it goes out into the burgeoning world of big data. Medical data is financially valuable, and your sensitive data may be shared or sold by doctors, hospitals, clinical laboratories, and pharmacies—without your knowledge or consent. Medical data can also be found in your browsing history, the smartphone applications you use, data from wearables, your shopping list, and more. At best, data about your health might end up in the hands of researchers on whose good will we depend to avoid abuses of power.2 Most likely, it will end up with data brokers who might sell it to a future employer, or an insurance company, or the government. At worst, your medical data may end up in the hands of criminals eager to commit extortion or identity theft. In addition to data harms related to exposure and discrimination, the collection of sensitive data by powerful corporations risks the creation of data monopolies that can dominate and condition access to health care. This chapter aims to explore the challenge that big data brings to medical privacy. Section I offers a brief overview of the role of privacy in medical settings. I define privacy as having one’s personal information and one’s personal sensorial space (what I call autotopos) unaccessed. Section II discusses how the challenge of big data differs from other risks to medical privacy. Section III is about what can be done to minimise those risks. I argue that the most effective way of protecting people from suffering unfair medical consequences is by having a public universal healthcare system in which coverage is not influenced by personal data (e.g., genetic predisposition, exercise habits, eating habits, etc.).

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Carissa Véliz
University of Oxford


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