Denmark plans to preserve illegally collected medical data

By EDRi · March 25, 2015

In Denmark, a controversial plan to prevent illegally collected medical data from being deleted has become a hot topic for the government. The plan involves transferring the data to the National Archives, which has an exemption in the Danish data protection act.

Under the Danish health care act, general practitioners can transfer medical data to a third party without consent from the patients if it is done for limited groups of patients and if analysis of the data can be used to improve the treatment of patients. This provision was used to create a central database known as Danish General Practice Database (DAMD) with the Region of Southern Denmark as the data controller.

DAMD was limited to the diagnosis for diabetes at the outset in 2007, but within a couple of years, all ICPC diagnosis data from general practice was being transferred to DAMD. This is clearly illegal, since the data collection without consent is no longer done only for limited groups of patients.

In November 2014, the Danish Minister for Health and the Region of Southern Denmark finally admitted that most of the medical data in DAMD is collected illegally. The natural next step would have been to delete the illegally collected data, but the Minister for Health stated publicly that he would prefer that this does not happen.

Within a week of the comment by the Minister for Health, the Danish National Archives suddenly decided that DAMD is a unique database which should be preserved at the National Archives. The data protection act has an exemption for transfer of personal data to the Danish National Archive, so that this can be done without consent. Based on an administrative authority in the national archive law, the Danish National Archives instructed the Region of Southern Denmark to retain the illegally collected medical data until further notice.

Privacy activists, including EDRi-member IT-Pol Denmark, object to this blatant abuse of the national archive law to essentially whitewash an illegal data collection of highly sensitive medical data. The Ministry of Culture has the responsibility for the National Archives. After an initial promise to delete the illegally collected data by mid February 2015, the culture minister Marianne Jelved decided to preserve DAMD at the National Archives.

Together with this decision, the minister proposed an amendment to the archive law which blocks access to illegally collected medical data for up to 230 years. However, these restrictions can always be removed by another amendment in a couple of years (the amendment law must be revised after no more than five years). Moreover, no assessment has been made of the costs of storing the highly sensitive medical data securely for 230 years, so that it could be used for historical research starting in 2245.

While the Danish government and parliament consider the fate of the DAMD database, Danish citizens can use their right under the data protection act to demand that their own illegally collected data is deleted. However, the order from the Danish National Archives prevents the data controller from deleting the entire DAMD database.

On 18 March, the Ministry of Culture was forced to admit that the Danish National Archives have used an inappropriate administrative order for demanding that DAMD is preserved. The correct administrative order for records held by the Danish regions places DAMD in the category of records to be discarded when no longer needed. The Ministry of Culture apparently sees this as a minor problem which can be solved simply by issuing an amended administrative order which places DAMD in the preservation category. However, before the new administrative order can take effect, there must be a formal consultation period. The deadline for consultation responses is set at 27 March, and the new administrative order will take effect from 7 April.

On 19 March, the Region of Southern Denmark found out that there is currently no proper legal basis for demanding the preservation of DAMD by the National Archives, and decided that the entire database will be deleted. Rather than just doing it, the region sent a letter to the Ministry of Culture stating that DAMD will be deleted on 24 March at noon.

The Danish National Archives and the Ministry of Culture responded almost immediately to this “threat” of restoring the rule of law by deleting illegally collected medical data. On 20 March, the deadline for the consultation was moved forward to March 23 (giving one working day for consultation responses), and the new administrative order will take effect on March 24, just in time to prevent the planned deletion of the entire DAMD database.

The only public comment from the Minister of Culture on these absurd developments is that the illegally collected medical data must be preserved in order to document illegal acts in the public administration for future generations. This is a rather strange argument since the illegal data collection has been documented extensively in several reports from government agencies. Moreover, the proposed blocked access wouldn’t allow any exceptions for the first 120 years, and this would also prevent using the data to document the illegalities.

Who wins the race for deletion of our medical data in DAMD? DenFri (only in Danish, 22.03.2015)

Illegally collected health data will not be deleted under Danish law, Medium (15.12.2014)

Danish General Practice Database

The Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet)

(Contribution by Jesper Lund, EDRi-member IT-Pol, Denmark)