The benefits are endless, but is our privacy at stake?

by Laura Fumiko Keehn 

If Intel Corporation, the world’s larg­est chip maker, with a predicted rev­enue of $9.8-$ 10 billion for the third quarter of 2005, has its eye on the healthcare industry, you know it’s lu­crative. Intel has developed a Digital Health Group, no doubt to further explore the profitable possibilities in healthcare.

On their website, they describe their ‘Proactive Health’ research pro­gram as exploring “evidence-based technologies.” Current projects in­clude ‘Activity Detection Technol­ogy’ in which ‘smart homes’ will be equipped “with a network of sensors that track and monitor everything from cooking habits… to level and quality of physical movement”.

If the words ‘proactive’, ‘track’ and ‘monitor’ alarm you, you’re not alone. It’s not so much the prospect of your complete medical records on a master database that is worrying, it’s what that information will be used for.

Mark Colby, healthcare entrepreneur and Japanese healthcare specialist, poses many questions concerning the potential effects of widespread healthcare monitor­ing. “What will happen if each one of us has a health ranking? What happens when surveillance becomes so good that health problems can be detected too well? What happens when your past medical history, or even your ancestors’ is public property?” Visions of the film Gattaca fill the mind. In the not-too-distant fu­ture, each of us may be given a genetic ranking and our place in society decided for us accordingly.

However, Colby also sees the many possibilities Intel-style monitoring can have on healthcare qual­ity. “If we can create a computer system into which all patient data from birth can be inputted, you can imagine the benefits,” says Colby, who predicts that such technology would “cut down on patient errors, which lead to 200,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.” Drug interactions and infectious diseases will also be quickly and efficiently recognized and monitored, and the process of introducing new therapies would be sped up.

Indeed, many countries and organizations have al­ready begun to utilize such databasing. According to Colby, the Netherlands is now in the process of track­ing every citizen from birth to death. Files will include education and criminal records. Singapore already has records of all their citizens on one file, as does the U.S. military. The United Kingdom also plans to create a database for every citizen. But back to the cons, the danger of having such comprehensive and sensitive information on one file is that unwanted eyes can see it. “Any data on any database should be consid­ered insecure” insists Colby, who cites Verizon Com­munications as an example. “[They] had 1.5 million attempts of break-in in their firewall every single day.” How would you feel if the database holding your most private healthcare history was subject to a comparable assault?

For the average citizen, the possibility of person­al information getting into the wrong hands makes us nervous. For the citizens of a country like Japan, with its extensive kojinjouhoushorikaihatsu, or privacy law, it’s an aberration. “Until 1945, Japan had a totalitarian government. If you look at WWII holocaust survivors, they are very strong advocates on privacy issues. [Similarly] Japan’s past will make it very resist­ant to privacy issues” believes Colby. Japan’s priva­cy laws are strict to the point of severely restricting medical innovations, with all clinical trials requiring informed consent with the patient. Ironically, full compliance with the privacy laws reassures citizens to the point that hospitals advertise their full compli­ance with the law to pull in patients. The business and healthcare possibilities in a country resistant to privacy issues would appear to be quite limited. How­ever, Colby insists that there is no turning back the tide of progress. “There will be some kind of system in place,” he says.

On their website, Intel pose the question “can proactive systems that anticipate a patient’s needs im­prove the quality of life for both the patients and their caregivers?” In a perfect world, the answer is yes. But in a world where our privacy is potentially exposed to prying eyes, the possibilities for systematic abuse are also limitless. Will our governments have the power to keep our information safe? The enemy may come from the most unlikely source. Colby points out “Histori­cally, abuses [in privacy] usually come from the gov­ernment.”

Food for thought. Meanwhile, Intel is developing a tiny battery-powered computing device that can be embedded in the shoes of Alzheimer’s patients.”

This article is based on a presentation given Mark Col­by on Oct. 8, 2005, organized by the American Cham­ber of Commerce in Japan.

The mission of the American Chamber of Com­merce in Japan (ACCJ) is to further the development of commerce between the United States of America and Japan, promote the interests of U.S. companies and members, and improve the international business environment in Japan. Established in 1948 by repre­sentatives of 40 American firms, the ACCJ has grown into one of the most influential business organizations in Japan, with more than 3,000 individual members representing more than forty countries and 1,300 com­panies. For information on ACCJ membership and up­coming events, see