Wednesday 3 August, 2022
…at Entrecasteaux. It has, like many of these French piles, une histoire.
Quote of the Day
"I went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity."
Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news
Mozart | Piano concerto No 21 | Andante
Pure schmaltz, but what the hell? I’m on holiday!
Long Read of the Day
How to save more lives and avoid a privacy apocalypse
This blog post by Tim Hartford is the most encouraging thing I've read in the last few weeks. It's about an ingenious proposal that could enable societies to have the benefits of big health data while avoiding the privacy nightmares we've experienced so far.
Here's how he sets out the problem:
In the mid-1990s, the Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission, an insurer of state employees, released healthcare data that described millions of interactions between patients and the healthcare system to researchers. Such records could easily reveal highly sensitive information — psychiatric consultations, sexually transmitted infections, addiction to painkillers, bed-wetting — not to mention the exact timing of each treatment. So, naturally, the GIC removed names, addresses and social security details from the records. Safely anonymised, these could then be used to answer life-saving questions about which treatments worked best and at what cost.
That is not how Latanya Sweeney saw it. Then a graduate student and now a professor at Harvard University, Sweeney noticed most combinations of gender and date of birth (there are about 60,000 of them) were unique within each broad ZIP code of 25,000 people. The vast majority of people could be uniquely identified by cross-referencing voter records with the anonymised health records. Only one medical record, for example, had the same birth date, gender and ZIP code as the then governor of Massachusetts, William Weld. Sweeney made her point unmistakable by mailing Weld a copy of his own supposedly anonymous medical records.
In nerd circles, there are many such stories. Large data sets can be de-anonymised with ease; this fact is as screamingly obvious to data-science professionals as it is surprising to the layman. The more detailed the data, the easier and more consequential de-anonymisation becomes.
But this particular problem has an equal and opposite opportunity: the better the data, the more useful it is for saving lives. Good data can be used to evaluate new treatments, to spot emerging problems in provision, to improve quality and to assess who is most at risk of side effects. Yet seizing this opportunity without unleashing a privacy apocalypse — and a justified backlash from patients — seems impossible.
Not so, says Professor Ben Goldacre, director of Oxford University’s Bennett Institute for Applied Data Science...
Read on. It's worth it.
My commonplace booklet
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is “utterly reckless”.
I never thought I’d find myself in agreement with Tom Friedman. But I am on this one. Worth reading his column to decide whether you agree with his judgement, which is that
“Nothing good will come of it. Taiwan will not be more secure or more prosperous as a result of this purely symbolic visit, and a lot of bad things could happen. These include a Chinese military response that could result in the U.S. being plunged into indirect conflicts with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time.”
Maybe Pelosi is doing it to demonstrate that the ancient constitutional tensions between the Executive and Congressional branches of the US government are alive and well. If so, there are less risky ways of doing that.