Cyber Woke for the Victims of Stalkers

People who are the victim of stalkers have a startlingly different cybersecurity risk profile.

I heard the idea articulated and clearly defended by Allison Bishop at CyberWeek. Here is her twitter, proof that she is funny and evidence that she is wicked smart.

She articulated several specific positions that are worth carefully articulating.

First, she discussed passwords on post-it notes. Now, old-school cyber-security people will say that written passwords are always a bad idea. But in reality, there is good evidence that writing passwords down, as long as you take the steps needed to secure the object they are written on is a pretty decent idea. Motherboard has a good discussion on this, but I have also heard the point made by cyber-luminary Bruce Schneier who has pointed out simply that we have a long history of securing access to physical things and we understand it pretty well. I think he makes this point in one of his excellent books, but it also might be on his excellent blog.

The new-school wisdom is that having a written password book, or post-it-note pad is an OK idea, as long as it is at home or if you have a good means of securing it.

What Allison pointed out is that very frequently Stalker Victims have a person going through their stuff when they are not at home. Frequently from an ex-romantic partner who “still has the keys”.

The second point she made was the stalker victims are more vulnerable to being forced to unlock devices using their fingerprints and faces under duress.

For most people, having fingerprint or face-based access control allows them to set their devices to “time-out” and require login much more frequently, which on balance can serve to improve device security. Without this change to the time-out period, it should be noted that the addition of biometric login pathways (to the current pin, pattern or password methods that most cell phones support) generally serve to open another authentication pathway, which inherently makes the devices less secure overall. One has to change the timeout to get a benefit.

All of this is based on the normal calculus of threat modeling for the typical person. The typical person (certainly me) assumes that the threat that they are mitigating is having their device stolen from them and accessed by a thief that might be attempting to use saved passwords to a bank or to share personal/naughty pictures with the Internet.

In fact, if you have a stalker, the notion that your phone can be opened, without a password, by a potential attacker using your unconscious face, or a limp finger, is pretty scary.

Her third point was that these women definitively need a “sanitized environment” to be able to be loaded with a false pin on their devices. I will not describe the proposal with her elegance, but basically, it means that if you open your phone with pin “4321” normally, that if you enter a second pin, say “5678” the phone will automatically open into a sanitized environment, but hide certain data and/or apps. This way, if you are forced to open your phone under duress, you can open it in a way that does not reveal your data, but satisfies the person who is threatening you with physical violence.

Her fourth point is that the “nanny” rootkits that are especially available in the Android ecosystem are a significant problem for stalker or abuse victims. They can easily be in a position where they lose access to their phone to a person who is violating their physical security without their knowledge. This temporary loss of physical control can snow-ball into a long-term escalated threat as the abuse or stalking victim cannot understand how their stalker/abuser seems to “always know” where they are and what they are doing. Rootkits might also subject other online resources to break in, as the stalker/abuser uses the key-logging capabilities of the rouge app to gain greater access.

Taken as a whole, Bishops points provide a characterization of the stalker victims threat model. They have an ever-present, nearby, physically dominant threat that typically demonstrates that they have no respect for either morality or the weight of the law.

I imagine that the only two frequently cited threat models that come close are nations where there is an omni-present authoritarian government that is willing to threaten or enact violence against any evidence of disloyal of thinking. (Taliban/Trump et al). And the troubling pattern of US border patrol requiring device surrendering upon entering the United States.

These two threat models and corresponding use cases are certainly the subject of concern for me, but I mostly avoid them by not traveling to autocratic countries. And only infrequently “re-entering” the United States. I assume that most world citizens can take the same steps, and therefore these problems are limited to those trapped in autocratic countries or who are performing critical international journalism. Both of those are critically important, of course, but Bishop reminded me that there are people living next door to me, who essentially have to navigate the same type of threats, without the benefit of the massive amount of attention that the cybersecurity gives to the previous two use cases. At least, I have never before heard a cogent talk given about the cybersecurity issues that these communities face.

It should also be noted that in the typical case, although the stalker might have the advantage of surprise, timing and domineering physical presence they might not have the advantage of technical sophistication. That detail is critically important because it changes important conversations like this one: about whether the Signal Iphone app should have a secondary access pin. Now Signal uses a system creates a “secondary locking” without a “secondary pin” for the Android or iPhone  for this use case, that is not the best design. It would be best, for instance, to give these victims the choice to insist on pin-only access (and not biometric) even though they had both biometric and pin based access to their main device.

The stalker or abuser who knocks his victim unconscious (or attempts to access a phone while a victim is asleep) using a biometric access control method, might have the sophistication to “check every app for something interesting” and might even have the sophistication to “use” a nanny rootkit. They might have the the capacity to even use passwords gained from a rootkit to abuse access to online resources. But they are still unlikely able to get around a simple additional pin code function on a phone. It means that certain features that are simple to implement on the part of apps like Signal or other privacy enhancing applications might be much more worthwhile then they originally appear.

The difference between the “stalker” threat and the “crooked state police” threat is that the stalker only has momentary physical superiority over the victim. There are many different cyber solutions that justifiably need to be abandoned because they cannot resist sustained physical threats. But this community presents valid use-cases for solutions that fail against persistent physical threats, but do not fail against temporary threats.

This is critical because it obvious that efforts to create tool-kits for this particular community of people is worthwhile. They have specific, reasonable requirements that are not always difficult to implement. There is low-hanging fruit here, that could dramatically improve the day to day lives of this community which is surprisingly large.

It is also obvious that there is work to be done educating this community with specific advice that they might find helpful given the currently available cybersecurity tools. For instance, now that Signal piggy-backs on the authentication mechanism of the phone to provide its additional layer of locking, It is likely to be excellent advice that people threaten by stalkers avoid using biometric unlock mechanisms for their devices. They should probably avoid android devices, until that platform makes it more difficult to install nanny rootkits. I am sure that Bishop has dozens of other specific points of advice that are relevant. For the purpose of this article, it is enough to point out that specific advice exists and would be valuable to disseminate.

It is also worth pointing out the critical connections between other classical women’s health issues and this one. Most victims of stalking and domestic abuse are women. Frequently, stalking and reproductive health (in all kinds of ways) become intertwined. Thinking about cyber, from the perspectives of women’s health should always include some kind of check “are you the victim of a stalker or other forms of physical abuse”? Because the advice changes. How a person should manage passwords changes, and there are likely to be many other interactions between a woman’s cybersecurity needs and her potential status as an abuse victim.

Sufficed to say, Bishops talk was eye opening and served to challenge multiple assumptions that I had, that I did not know I had. The best type of technical talk, really. I believe that the University of Tel Aviv plans to release most of the CyberWeek content on their Youtube channel eventually, and when that happens I will try and update this paragraph with a link to the original talk. In the mean time, thanks for reading my celebration of her ideas, which are worth spreading.

-ft

 

 

 

 

No Shit In The Ranch House

Please forgive my use of a four-letter word. But it is central to my overall point, as I hope you will soon see.

Ranches are shit-management systems. There are other ways to think about a ranch, more refined and polite. But this way of looking at a ranch is useful. A ranch is all about raising animals for food, and animals shit. A proper ranch, unlike the factory farming methods criticized in the new film Eating Animals, handles these goals in a manner that is respectful to the animals in question.

The single biggest problem with having lots of animals in a single location is shit. More animals means more shit.

Properly managed ranches have all kinds of systems in place for managing shit. They design their animal stalls to be easy to shovel. They use wheel-barrows and bobcats and all kinds of reliable solutions to ensure that shit does not pile up in the wrong places.

Cows are willing to defecate in transit. Which means that as cows are herded from one ranch facility to the next, they occasionally make a trial of cow paddy. Cowboy boots are designed to be easy to wipe-down, for this reason. On a ranch, shit tends to get everywhere, and the ranch as a system spends a huge of amount of energy addressing this problem.

My understanding of ranches arise from fond childhood memories and family lore. My great-grandfather was the foreman of the Pfluger Ranch (which would later become Pflugerville). My understanding of a ranch is based mostly on third and second-hand stories, and is likely not too much better anyone else’s. But what limited understanding I have is enough to grasp two basic concepts: First, shit management is an ongoing unpleasant task on a ranch. And second, there is typically a large expansive home at the center of large ranches. This second concept is where we get the reference to a “ranch-style” home, a single-floor phenomenon where there is very little incentive to build a second story.

Now, imagine that you run a grocery. You decide which ranches provide the meat to the butchers in your grocery store. In that role you would have a pretty good idea how ranches are supposed to operate, having seen many of them over the years. You would be familiar with the rituals undertaken upon arriving as a guest at a new ranch. You are invited into the central home, which looks from the outside to be a spacious, welcoming house. This is the reason it is so often referred to as simply, the “Big House”. This is the seat of power in the ranch, and you note that the cowboys/girls that enter with you defer to the significance of the place by removing their hats.

Now further imagine, upon visiting this ranch, that you find a big, heaping pile of shit, in the main parlor of this central house. Right inside the front door. Right on the obviously expensive rug. Inside the house.

This is your first impression of the ranch. What are your thoughts? You might wonder “How did a cow get in here?”, “How long has this shit been here?”, “Why didn’t someone clean this shit up before we got here?”

But from the perspective of your evaluation of the ranch, it does not matter what the answer to any of your questions are. From your perspective, this is not a ranch you want to work with. Because you know that there are lots of moving parts to a ranch, lots of things that need to go well, and if the ranch is so poorly managed that it cannot keep bullshit out of what should be the best-kept part of the ranch, then it is extremely unlikely that the ranch has its shit together anywhere else. (see what I did there?) Most importantly, it is not worth your time to perform the very careful examination of the ranch that would be required to undo your first impression.

That does not mean that you (as the grocer still) would penalize a different ranch for having shit in the stalls, or shit in the barn or shit on a walkway… Dealing with shit, even stepping in shit is part of the life of working on, or even visiting, a ranch. But it really matters where the shit is. And if you see shit in the parlor of a ranch, it will take herculean efforts by the members of that ranch to ever regain your trust. But most importantly, even if the ranch were to undertake those efforts to change your mind, you are just going to go down the street to the ranch that seems like it has its shit together. You simply do not have time for that shit. (it is too easy)

Of course, you think that I have been talking about ranches and shit this whole time, and you would be right in guessing that this is just a metaphor for something else. Something that I, in a non-cow related technical profession, might have more experience with.

What I am really talking about here is software bugs. Bugs = Shit in this analogy and Ranch = Software Project. One way to think about the software development process is that it is all about fixing the bugs that are a natural by product of software features. More features, more bugs. More cows, more shit. Everyone expects the bugs in software, just like everyone expects shit on a ranch.

But if you have shit in the parlor of your ranch house, then it is obvious to anyone who is evaluating your ranch that you are not effectively managing your shit. In the same way, if you have a bug in the instructions that are covered in the Readme.md of your Github software repo, people are highly unlikely to forgive that.

When a new developer comes across a project on Github, (or Gitlab or Sourceforge or who knows now that Microsoft has bought Github) and that project fails to correctly install, or basically function as the project Readme.md file in the repo suggests that it will, then that developer will judge that software is useable and will probably never come back. (For those who are not following there is a special file, called Readme.md, that Github treats as the introduction to your software resource. When you scroll down in the VueJS/Vue project, for instance, when you start scrolling down, you start seeing the main files inside the software project, followed by a web content that is generated by GitHub by interpreting the Markdown contents of the ReadMe.md file.

This is the reason why I get so upset that projects that I fund, sponsor, contribute to or rely on have failures in the way that the software should function in the Readme. It means that the maintainers of the project have profoundly forgotten how the process looks from the outside. The team has become so focused on moving forward with new features and functionality that it has forgotten what the experience of a new developer or user reaching out to a new project is.

When a developer of a FOSS software project on github releases a new build of their software, pushing to “master” in git-speak and suggesting that some other version of a software project is acceptable, they need to do a final manual check to ensure that on a new server, with a fresh OS installation, with nothing configured, that following the installation and configuration instructions in the Readmd.md file will work all the way to the “example usage” stage.

I love the new focus on automatic integration. Travis-CI et al have made it much easier to automate final unit testing. Test-driven development is a wonderful idea. But developers still need to do a manual check before a specific release of software to ensure that the current version of the instructions in the Readme, actually result in a good experience for first-time users. Unit tests cannot tell you if the english-language “startup” instructions in the Readme are up to date.

Sometimes, changes in software result in the need to update the Readme instructions. Sometimes the Readme contents are correct, but there is an introduction of a new requirement for the project (new database tables for instance) that need to be automatically detected and fixed on first-time use. I cannot imagine that there will every be an automated system that will predict every new dependency and process change.

I am also not suggesting that every bit of documentation needs to be updated with every release. It is certainly important that documentation generally be maintained and certainly documentation coverage should be considered at a minimum for every release. But while that is important, that is not what I am talking about here. The question that every new user is asking when they download software that solves a problem from Github is “will this thing work for me”, and answering that question frequently requires a huge investment of time and money. But before they make that decision, they want to know “is this software project basically sound?”. If the answer to this question is “yes” then they will make the greater effort to discover if the software works for their use cases.

As long as the new developer believes that the underlying software project is basically sound they will be tolerant or even better, collaborative, with regards to the bugs that they do find. But they want assurances that the software basically does what it says on the Tin. They want to know that the maintainers of the software basically have their shit together, which makes investing in the software a reasonable choice.

Play testing a new software release will always need to be a manual task that is done at the end of sprints. If it is not done then software that is publicly version controlled (on Github or elsewhere) run the risk of alienating new developers which is a death-sentence for any project. If a software sprint ends without “time” to play-test the new release to ensure that it works on fresh systems, then the scope of the sprints needs to be reduced until time for that task is accounted for.

In my opinion, this is the single most important thing that a software project can do to market itself and succeed in market that is crowded with other publicly available Open Source software. It one of the great weapons that modern developers have against the scourge of the “it-works-on-my-machine” disease that all developers seem infected with.

No shit belongs in the ranch house. Try to ensure your Readme “get going” instructions are perfect with every new release.

 

 

 

How to be Cyber Woke for patients. Facebook lesson 1

So I wrote a post supporting the notion that Facebook could do some good by integrating with hospital data. That blew up on Twitter, and so much so that it eventually ended up on CNBC. 

Before I go on, I must recommend the continued reporting from @chrissyfarr who broke the original story.  I also recommend that you read the article on WaPo from @KirstenOstherr  which provides some much needed context on why this is important. She is a professional healthcare media analyst and it shows.

Since all of this, a patient group (will update later with information on who) has reached out to me for help understanding exactly what the risks are for patients who are using Facebook, especially those who are using Facebook to connect with other patients inside patient support groups. We agreed that some specific advice might be useful to other patients and patient support group admins, so I am posting this here for anyone to reference. The first thing I should note is that I will be writing a separate guide for people who are hosting patient support groups on facebook. The damage that can be done through an single admin account on a patient group on Facebook is tremendous (the power is like raw Plutonium) and there is a difference between the advice that I would give someone who is essentially responsible for other people’s private information, versus someone who just wants to be able to share information about their healthcare condition with their friends on Facebook.

Think of it like this: a surgeon has very different hygiene protocols to follow, compared with a person who is just visiting a hospital, vs someone who is healthy and not visiting sick people.

In the same way there is a difference between how you use Facebook and the Internet generally, in a secure and private fashion if:

  1. You are not sharing health information online at all.
  2. You are a patient participating in a topical health discussion on social media
  3. And a person who manages a patient community on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

This post is all about #2 people. If you are #1, you might be better served with an general introduction into how to use Facebook securely. I will cover those topics here too, but I will also cover things that will only make sense to patients.

I am also going to try to be as brief as possible, because I know you have other things to do. But this is not a simple subject. And if you care about this, you need to take a second and realize that there is a lot to learn.

So I am going to leave you with checklists and pictures to speed things up. Also, please note that I intend for this post to be a work-in-progress. Feedback is welcome. But you should tell me what you think by tweeting to me.

How to get to your Facebook Settings:

 

 

Almost all of the instructions below start from the Settings page, which can be reached by clicking the drop-down in the top-right of the Facebook web interface.

General

The only relevant thing you can do here is to download your data. Note that once you have downloaded your data, it is possible for someone to hack your computer and steal it. I recommend that you encrypt your backup in a zip file. And then upload that file to DropBox or something like it, for safekeeping…

Security and Login

The most important lesson you can use regarding your Facebook password is to:

  • Use passphrase. They are much more secure than passwords and they are easier to remember.
  • Never use the same password you use for Facebook on ANY other site.

If you are the ONLY PERSON who uses your computer.

  • Then you want to make it difficult for other people to even access your computer at all. You need an inactivity password (i.e. you have to login to your computer again after not using it for an hour or so).
  • Then use the password management capability on your computer

If you SHARE a computer

  • Try to use a different user account on your operating system than the other people using your computer.
  • Do not save your facebook password or use the automatic login functionality in Facebook
  • On a shared computer, you are going to have to type your password everytime you use Facebook, if you want to ensure that you are using it securely.
  • When you are done using the browser erase your history and cookies.

Now you might be thinking, “I share my computer with my husband/wife/father/mother/son/friend/dog and I really trust them, there is no need for me to protect my facebook login from them”. Remember that this is a hygiene exercise. Lets say that you have a Windows computer and you have a login for yourself separate from your loved one. That is a bother, you have to switch users every time you want use Facebook. But, if your loved one accidentally visits a website with malware, their account might become infected with a virus. If you are lucky, the Windows/Whatever operating system might be able to protect your username and password information, if you are not using the same account.

There is a difference between trusting in someone else’s personal integrity, vs trusting in their browsing habits. It is very easy to download something that will try and hurt your computer on the Internet.

Here are more specific instructions on how to use the “Security and Login” settings for Facebook.

Privacy:

  • If you are a patient on facebook, it might be possible that many, or even all, of the friends that you have on facebook also share the same medical condition as you do. You can help protect their privacy by setting “Who can see your friends list” from “Public” to “Friends”. You can find that setting under Settings->Privacy
  • Also on Settings->Privacy you probably want to disable phone number based look up. There are lots of people who enter random phone numbers into Facebook and try to figure out who they belong to.
  • Also on Settings->Privacy is “Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile”. You probably want that set to “no” unless you really need people to be able to google you, and find your facebook account.
  • If you are not a patient advocate, and you are using Facebook to share your health experiences primarily in order to stay connected with people you already know, I recommend that you set both your future and past posts to “Friends”, “Friends except..”, or “Specific friends”. Having your activity be public means that “bots” or scrapers, can access your information, which might not be what you want.

 

Apps and Websites:

  • Turn  off all of the apps that you are not using under Settings->Apps and Websites.
  • Second, for those apps you keep, click “view and edit” and remove access to any data that you think they should not have access to. This is a good time to ask the question: “Why would an app that does X need access to data about Y”. If it does not totally make sense to you, turn it off.
    • You probably do not want to allow apps to see your list of friends
    • You probably do not want to let an app read your posts, or your likes, or your photos, places or videos.
    • You probably do not want an app to be able to control your “pages”

Ads:

There are a ton of settings under Settings->Ads. But trying to navigate those are pretty difficult. Ultimately, Advertisers pay Facebook lots of money to reach you.

Try not to click on Facebook ads. If you see an ad for something you like, just use Google to find the company instead. If you click an ad, and that ad only targeted people similar to you, it might be possible for that company to eventually figure out what your healthcare status is. If this feels like a bother to you, then you need to spend some time exploring the Settings->Ads section… which can give you some control over the types of ads you see, but does little to help advertisers from building a data model about you.

But lets say you reeaaallly need to click an ad. Well, if you are using Chrome or Firefox you can open the link in a way that passes less information to the advertiser about who you are…  To do this choose “Open in Incognito Window” in the right-click menu in Chrome browsers. And in Firefox open “Open Link in New Private Window”. There is a way to browse privately on almost every modern browser.

 

 

Which browser?

There are good reasons to use Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox exclusively if you want to have a more secure online experience. First, their code is subject to public inspection because they are Open Source. But also because they support browser extensions which can dramatically improve the security and privacy of your browsing. Specifically, I recommend:

Privacy Badger – a tool that keeps websites like FaceBook track your web-browsing when you are NOT on Facebook. This can sometimes make websites break, but I encourage you to try to learn how to use it, as it will substantially decrease the amount of information that you “leak” online.

HTTPS Everywhere – a tool that attempts to ensure that your connection to the web is encrypted when ever possible.

Note that both of these browser extensions are developed and maintained by the EFF, which is one of the most vocal and effective organizations for protecting your security and privacy online. Also, getting an EFF branded cover for your webcam is definitely the way the cool kids are showing they are “Cyber Woke”. Also, they have cool hoodies.

 

Other random stuff:

If you really value your security, get a Google Chromebook. They are difficult to hack.

Do not insert USB sticks that you “find” into your computer. Make sure you purchase USB sticks yourself from reputable vendors.

 

 

 

Facebook and Healthcare data, the contrarian view.

Recently, I read an article that Facebook had been considering partnering with hospitals to connect their social data with the hospitals’ patient data in order to provide improved services to patients. Facebook had decided, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, to put those plans on hold. Here is the video version of the report, which is definitely worth watching.

I thought this was disappointing, because I know that many patients rely on social media generally, and Facebook in particular to coordinate patient care. Connecting healthcare data with a patients social graph, when done with permission and with limited and intelligent goals could result in real improvements in patient care, especially for our most vulnerable populations.

I tweeted as much:

I have been surprised by the subsequent reactions, very few of my tweets seem to garner this much attention or engagement. Given this reaction, I thought it wise to more carefully defend my position.

I do not think anyone should claim “expertise” in anything as nebulous and unknowable as healthcare cybersecurity currently is, but I am definitely comfortable saying, that I am not a novice.

I have spent time thinking carefully about the intersection of healthcare information systems, and cybersecurity and privacy. This has lead me to be frequently at odds with other cybersecurity experts who are legitimately concerned about the dangers of connecting to early.

The problem that I see again and again are knee-jerk policy reactions to technology potential and, more generally, a tendency for talking-head histrionics regarding healthcare information privacy. Probably the most extreme of these, historically, has been my friend Dr. Deborah Peel. Dr Peel has continued to suggest that all health information exchange halt, until it can be made entirely secure and entirely respect patient privacy and ongoing consent.

The problem with that approach is that it tends to drive healthcare data exchange efforts “underground”. The discussion about Facebooks change in policies is a good example such fear-mongering. Note how CNBC chose to frame the news that Facebook was NOT going to reach out to hospitals. Let me quote some of the article, highlighting some of the terms that I find concerning.

Facebook sent a doctor on a secret mission to ask hospitals to share patient data

Facebook was in talks with top hospitals and other medical groups as recently as last month about a proposal to share data about the social networks of their most vulnerable patients.

The idea was to build profiles of people that included their medical conditions, information that health systems have, as well as social and economic factors gleaned from Facebook.

Now, CNBC is not as given as some of the other networks to outright fear-mongering, but I do need to quibble with this type of reporting. First, if you read the article closely you will see that the project intended to link data using a two-sided hashing mechanism. This serves to protect the privacy of both the Facebook user data, and the hospitals’ patient data. The headline makes it seem like it would be trivial for both the hospital and Facebook to identify these patients. Of course, such a dataset would be relatively simple to re-identify given how much of Facebook’s user data is public information. And it is highly unlikely that either Facebook or the hospitals intended to release this merged dataset to the public. Still, de-identifying a dataset like this is a useful precaution to ensure that researchers are not tempted to violate patient privacy.

This type of de-identification strategy would have made the resulting dataset almost useless for Facebooks main profit center: selling targeted advertising. But the article makes it sounds like this is the aim, because the partnership was seeking to “build a profile”. A profile that is not connected to an identity is… well it’s not profile. A profile is a kind of an aggregation of multiple people.. and a dossier is about one specific person. Deidentified data is not really either one of those things. It is about a specific person, unlike a profile and unlike a dossier because no identity is attached. In this respect, building a “profile” does not seem like such a big deal, its an aggregate of people, a single average that is useful to help understand many potential individuals…

In fact, “building a profile” is clearly not the aim of such an endeavor, but only an intermediate goal. The reason such a “double anonymized” merged dataset would be useful, is because you could learn how to help patients by studying it. The research might help the hospitals, and Facebook, to understand how to better serve the patients that they both have as customers. A non-public anonymized dataset like this, shared only between the a limited set of researchers representing the two parties who contributed data, is pretty hard to abuse.

In fact, this is exactly the type of research that both Facebook and the hospitals have an independent and shared ethical obligation to undertake. There are more patients who share clinical information across Facebook than any software designed for that purpose (typically those products are called PHR systems). Facebook users use the platform every day to coordinate caregiving for their friends and family. They use it to coordinate whose turn it is to make dinner, and to coordinate which “friend” is going to show up and hold their loved ones hand. They use it promote the go-fund-me pages that have frequently taken the place of comprehensive health insurance in this country. They use it to request prayers, when the pain is really bad, and the pills no longer work.

Is this a good idea? Well, there are many who would warn that sharing data publicly like this is dangerous and they are profoundly correct. But this sharing is not done because users trust Facebook, quite the contrary. Facebook is tolerated, as a gateway to the friendships and family members that Facebook users so desperately need when they become seriously ill.

That use-case is not what Mark Zuckerburg imagined in his Harvard dorm. Frankly, it was a case of great foresight for Mark to guess that people might use his young platform get laid. But as Facebook has become the de-facto mechanism to connect with friends and family, especially across generations, it has also become a very common place for patients to connect with their care community. Or at least the parts of their care community that are NOT professional clinicians.

The professional clinicians not only fail to connect with patients friend and family network, they also fail to connect digitally with each other. Instead, they are rewarded for hoarding their portion of a patients medical data to themselves, a problem regularly referred to as the “silo” problem in healthcare informatics.

There has been no technical reason why patient data is not regularly shared between healthcare providers for more than three decades. However, our healthcare system continues to financially reward providers who hoard rather than share data. Healthcare technologists like myself do not, despite appearances to the contrary work to make data sharing possible, instead, we spend our careers desperately seeking technical solutions to health data exchange that are politically palatable.

So I hope you can understand that when two parts of the healthcare eco-system start to consider collaborating in a way that helps patients, this is something that we should celebrate with… concerned… optimism.

And I am concerned. I am very concerned that Facebooks basic structure does little to protect those who share healthcare information across its network already.

Just as we should be concerned that Apples recently announced Hospital integrations will serve reduce the investments that hospitals make in other patient-data sharing methods. Which might serve to widen the digital health divide. Poor people in this country have trouble affording iPhones, which could be soon be one of the few ways to conveniently access their own hospital data. But we should cautiously celebrate Apples work in this area.

We should be concerned that Google has recently announced multiple new Health IT API initiatives, despite having unceremoniously shut down its previous healthcare API offering.

We should celebrate Grindr’s efforts to encourage regular STD testing, even if this action has been clearly overshadowed by the news that they were sharing HIV status with third party companies.

Look, if you are this far in the article and thinking that I am defending Facebook’s egregious cybersecurity mistakes, its constantly over-reaching data grabs and generally cavalier (even sometimes malicious) attitude towards personal privacy, then you are missing my point entirely. As twitter user _j3lena_ pointed out correctly, it is only reasonable to assume that there are dozens of other organizations that have Facebook data on the same scale as Cambridge Analytica. That is just the one that we see. (updated to acknowledge _j3lena_’s comments)

Facebook has been a privacy nightmare for years, and I am very hopeful that they might see their failure in these areas as an existential threat to their existence. Because they should go out of business if they cannot ensure that their platform is something more than a monetized privacy-abuse vector. Facebook deserves to go the way of the Dodo, if they cannot help its users differentiate between real and fake news. Make no mistake, Russians advertising on facebook is a big problem, but this pales in comparison to the personal consequences for a person who is convinced not give their child a vaccine because of a facebook group.

My point is just this. We need to give companies credit when they embrace security best-practices as they pursue ethically reasonable goals. Like leveraging a hashing for de-identification scheme in an attempt to do things with patients’ data to help clinicians to improve care they give those patients. We need to criticize, and if needed, boycott and regulate companies that abuse our data. We need to have national policies that create real consequences for companies that abuse their positions of trust.

But we also need to give credit where credit is due, and Facebook was probably trying to do some good work with this hospital collaboration.

I hope this better explains my tweet.

-ft

Good Questions:

As per always, the Twitter community has given me new things to think about.

  • First, it is not clear what it means for this to be done “in secret” if this deal included non-disclosure agreements, that is problematic.
  • Second, and this is something that I did not get into, but that CNBC did a good job emphasizing, especially in the video version of the report, is that it is not clear how, or if, explicit patient consent would have been involved.

Updates:

Added several good points from Twitter, and as @corbinpetro pointed out, its CNBC and not CBS.

 

Cascading Configuration Design Pattern

I have not been able to find simple plain-language descriptions of what the Cascading Configuration Design Pattern is. And really not that many complicated descriptions either. 

Basically, this pattern is used to simplify very complicated configuration problems, by simplifying what would be a matrix of configuration decisions into a “cascade” of configurations using a hierarchy.

This easier to understand in the context of the most commonly used implementation of this pattern, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). This is for people who would like to understand the general concept, but if you want, you can just study how CSS works and you get the general idea.

The first is to imagine a “configuration list” where you have common items that are choosable settings (i.e. this is a “configuration” design pattern after all). Which means you have a bunch of items, that can have different things configured about those items. Those can be elements of a webpage, details in a software or data specification, Firewall rules in an access control list or a purchase list for a fleet of vehicles. All of these are examples of  a “configuration matrix”. If we are lucky enough to have a configuration matrix that only requires 2 dimensions to display, we can look at as a “configuration table”. For now, do not get intimidated when I say “matrix”, you can mentally short-cut that to “multi-dimensional table” or perhaps even simpler “really complex table”.

We are going to use an ordering sheet for a fleet of vehicles in our example configuration matrix:

Item: Vehicle Item: Type Config: Color Config: Transmission Config: Windows
Ford Mustang Car Red  Automatic Automatic
Ford Focus Car Red Automatic Automatic
Ford Fiesta Car Red Automatic Automatic
Chevy Corvette Car Red Automatic Automatic
Chevy Volt Car Red Automatic Automatic
Honda Civic Car Red Automatic Automatic
Honda Accord Car Red Automatic Automatic
Ford F-350 Truck Blue Automatic Automatic
Mack Granite Truck Blue Manual Automatic
Mack Titan Truck Blue Manual Automatic

Now, the above table can defined as a data table. Explicitly defining each individual configuration items. They are always vehicles of some type. But you can choose the following items:

  • Color
  • Transmission Type, either Automatic or Manual
  • Window Mechanism, either Automatic or Manual

Now, if you look at the table above, you notice something pretty quickly. There is not that much information there. In fact, rather than having this whole table, you could just tell your fleet manager some simple english sentences about how you configure your vehicles. You could say

  • We never get manual windows. Who needs that noise?
  • All of our cars are red with automatic transmission
  • All of our trucks are blue.
  • All of our trucks have manual transmission, except for the Ford F350, which is automatic

Now why is this set of rules better than the data table? If you imagine a fleet with 200 more models of cars, or 100 different types of semi trucks, you would have a data table with 300 different elements. But as long as the basic rules remained the same, the english version of the configuration is much easier to work with. So you either have a configuration system with 4 rules, or 300 data points in a data table. When you consider that many configuration problems are multi-dimensional (i.e. n-dimensional sparse matrix rather than a 2d table). The benefits having a sparser configuration mechanism become obvious.

But we should note that the english rules have lost no information from the configuration matrix. That basically means they are the same thing, just in two different representations.

The only problem that we have to solve after this is how to ensure that the rules that we have currently written in english are machine-readable. First there is the data encoding standard, and for that we might choose YAML, XML, JSON or any of the other standards that are good for generically encoding hierarchical data. You want a data standard that is both readable by humans, and potentially automatically processable by computers. But the concept is not limited to explicit use inside data formats. You can use this to structure configure data in documents or spreadsheets. If you wanted the best of both worlds, you could use something like Markdown, which is halfway between a data language and a document system.

While you can implement things in very different ways, it is important to keep this rule solidly in mind.

To work, the configuration cascade should be convertible in one and only one way into its corresponding configuration matrix.

If you break that rule. The usefulness of a configuration cascade is completely lost.

So lets recode the english rules above as a simple yaml cascading configuration:

Vehicle: 
    Window: Automatic
    Color: Red

Vehicle-Type:
    Truck: 
         Color: Blue
         Transmission: Manual

    Car: 
         Transmission: Automatic

FordF350: 
    Transmission: Automatic

If you are familiar with CSS, you can see how close this to just applying CSS to another data model. Which is basically the idea of this design pattern.

For everyone else, lets talk a little about what is going on. Using this yaml file, you can recreate the configuration matrix above, by applying the configurations by inheritance in the order of specificity.

Which is to say, the more specifically targeted the rule is, the higher priority it is given. Every thing on the configuration list is a vehicle, which means any configurations under the “Vehicle:” section will apply to the entire configuration. That is awesome because it lets define the fact that we never want to have manual windows (or always automatic windows) easily. We also define the fact that most of our vehicles have the color of red safely at this level.

All of the trucks are blue, and we have a rule that says that under Vehicle-Type:Truck Color:. All of the car configuration items will inherit their color from the Vehicle, but all Trucks will inherit their color from the Vehicle-Type:Truck Color: definition.

We do not need to define the color of the Car Vehicle type, because it will still be red.

Lastly, the specific item of Ford350 is the only truck that has an Automatic Transmission. So we need to specify that item with the Ford350: line and then set its Transmission: option to Automatic. The Ford350 will inherit everything from the Vehicle.. unless it is overridden by the Vehicle-Type:Truck settings (which is what will make the Ford350 blue). And finally, because it is most specifically set, the Transmission: value is going to apply just to that one item.

Note that it is easier to read these cascades when they are written with the most general definitions at the top, and the more specific rules at the bottom. This eliminates the need to figure out whether rule ordering (i.e. what comes first) is more or less important than specificity (what targets the configuration item most specifically). There are some systems that look like cascades that are actually order-sensitive (i.e. this is how firewall configurations work). But rather than try understand which takes precedence, it is better just to start with the most general at the top of configuration files, and end with the most specific. This is the same best practice (BTW) with order of operations in algebra and programming. You should never write 4 x 4 + 10, because that means that you have to know which comes first, multiplication or addition. Instead, you should make it explicit by writing (4 x 4) + 10 because then you are saying the same thing, in a way that is not ambiguous or has to have a set unwritten (and poorly remembered) rules to resolve.

So that is the Cascading Configuration Design Pattern. I hope you found this helpful.

 

QR Code as Art

Recently, I have come to realize how many issues I have hidden from by being a work-a-holic. Especially losing my mother and brother so close together. It was coming out in unhealthy ways and I have been looking for better ways to process those events, rather than letting them fester as a back-ground brain process.

I had two friends recently recommend “art as therapy”. And I loved the idea, it reminded me of how I have used tinkering/hacking as a kind of therapy in the past. I thought perhaps I could try both at once.

QR codes are going to have a small renaissance now that iOS 11 natively reads QR codes in the main camera application. This has renewed my obsession with QR codes, and I have been researching how QR codes, and art, and cryptocurrencies play along. You can embed crypto keys into QR codes, and you can embed QR codes into art, which is an amazing concept that I got from a the cryptoart booth at SXSW several years ago.

I am thinking about QR code stenciling again, as well as QR code tattoos.

But putting QR codes on art, or even spray painting them is just scratching the surface. One of the most interesting things that you can do with a QR code is merge it with art. This merger can be done in several different ways. First, you can just use a mosaic of some kind, and make the “boxes” of the QR code out of something interesting (Mosaic). Because of how QR code error correction works, you can typically fit things in the center of a QR code without interfering with the reading of the QR code (Overlay). The thing that QR code scanning apps typically care about it the contrast, which means that you can actually muck about with the contrast on a regular image and have the QR codes and the images merge (Contrast). Lastly, you can actually change the layout of the blocks in the QR code to have the QR code itself have a visible pattern (Q-Art). This is my favorite because if the tremendous depth of the maths involved, which actually honors the QR code standard and the URL standard to do something pretty profoundly different. This method was first developed by Russ Cox. Its actually pretty difficult to find any single place where these three distinct methods are even listed out. Most of the good article detail how to use one and only one method. So here we go.

average

code_monkey_qr_code

 

docgraph.qr

 

docgraph.qart

Pretty sure this does not count as a “method” by itself, but here is a project that let you map a QR code into a lego building plan. So that you can build your QR code out of legos.

Someone took this a step farther an made a qr code from the shadows of legos..

The upside-down earth logo that you see featured here repeatedly is the work of my dear friend Richard Sachs for my Walking Gallery jacket, which was then adopted as the logo for my healthcare data journalism efforts, with The DocGraph Journal.

The Federal Government Recommends JSON

It is the policy of many governments to support transparency with the release of Open Data. But few understand how important it is that this Open Data be released in machine-readable openly available formats. I have already written a lengthly blog post about how most of the time, the CSV standard is the right data standard to use for releasing large open data sets.  But really JSON, XML, HTML, RTF, TXT, TSV and PDF files, which are all open standard file formats, each have their place as appropriate data standards for governments to use as they release Open Data.

But it can be difficult to explain to someone inside a government or non-profit, who is already releasing Open Data that CSV is a good standard, but XLSX (Microsoft Excel) is not. For many people, a CSV really is an Excel file, so there is no difference in their direct experience. But for those of us who want to parse, ETL or integrate that data automatically there is a world of difference in the level of effort required between a clean CSV and a messy XLSX file (not to mention the cybersecurity implications).

A few months ago (sorry I get distracted) Project Open Data which is a policy website maintained and governed jointly by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the US Federal Government updated its website to include W3C and IETF as sources of Open Data Format Standards, by accepting a pull request that I made. As I had expected, not including IETF and W3C in the list of sources of Open Standards was an omission and not a conspiracy (sometimes I panic).

This is a very important resource for those of us who advocate for Open Data. It means that we can use a single URL link, specifically, this one:

https://project-open-data.cio.gov/open-standards/

To indicate that it is the policy of the United States Federal Government that not only release Open Data, but it do so using specific standards that are also open. Now that the W3C and IETF are added, the following data standards are by proxy included in the new policy regarding open data standards:

Obviously these four standards make up almost all of the machine readable Open Data that is already easy to work with, and with a few exceptions represents the data formats that 95% (my guesstimate) of all Government data should be released in. In short, while there are certainly other good standards, and even cases where we must tolerate proprietary standards for data, most of the data that we need to release should be released in one of these four data formats.

For those of us who advocate for reasonableness in Open Data releases.. this is a pretty big deal. We can now simply include a few links to publicly available policy documents rather than arguing independently for the underlying principles.

And because the entire Project Open Data website is so clear, concise and well-written and because it comes with the implicit endorsement of US Federal Governments (OMB and OSTP), this is a wonderful new resource for advocating with National, State, City, Local and International governments for the release of Open Data using reasonable data formats. Hell, we might even be able to get some of the NGOs to consider releasing data correctly because of this. My hope is that this will make complaining about proprietary format data releases easier, and therefore more frequent, and help us to educate data releasers on how to make their data more useful. Which in turn will make it easier for data scientists, data journalists, academics and other data wonks to create impact using the data.

My applause to the maintainers and contributors to Project Open Data.

-FT

 

 

 

 

 

Harris Health Ben Taub Refusal to Triage

This week I went to the Harris Health Ben Taub ED because I was passing a kidney stone. I was refused triage and told that I would have to wait 7 hours for treatment, behind a waiting room full of people who were obviously in the ED for urgent issues that were not as acute as a kidney stone.

As a e-patient advocate, I am aware of the options available for patients who are denied emergency care. Harris Health is not a Joint Commission accredited hospital. It is instead accredited by the DVN GL Corporation. I am sharing my experience with them using their patient compliant process. I choose not to be anonymous while submitting this form (obviously).

Description – please describe your compliant

In the early morning hours of 07-11-2017 I realized that I was passing my second kidney stone. I arranged for a ride to the ED quickly, knowing that crushing pain would soon begin. Indeed, by the time I arrived at the ER, I was unable to stand up straight and I was experiencing waves of nausea.

I walked into the ED told them I was passing a kidney stone and asked for help. Two security guards waved me around the corner where a woman told me to sit. As soon as I sat down, I began vomiting. After vomiting, I told the woman that I was passing a kidney stone and that I was in terrible pain. She never asked what level of pain I was experiencing, or asked what I was experiencing. I made it clear that I had a kidney stone and that I was in pain. I told her that I had not been previously treated at Ben Taub and that I went to Memorial Hermann ED for treatment that last time.

She took my information and told me to proceed through the double doors, and that I would find a trash can in the next room to deposit my pan of vomit away in. I went through the double doors to find the waiting room, threw away my vomit and immediately approached 4 people about what I was supposed to do next. All of the people who were clearly staff in the waiting room said the same thing. They were not the person I needed to talk to and they did not know who I should talk to. I spoke to at least 4 different people in at least 4 groups. Confused as to what I should do next, I returned through the double doors to the original woman and asked what I was supposed to do.

I was then informed that I was to wait in the waiting room for my name to be called and that the wait was going to be 7 hours.  I said that I was passing a kidney stone and made it clear that this was not acceptable. I was given a “sorry”. I asked if I could leave and seek treatment elsewhere, I was told that I could.

I left and went to an urgent care center. The urgent care center promptly treated my pain and confirmed a kidney stone with a CT scan. They also informed me that my blood sugar test qualified me for “first onset diabetes”. I was given insulin to immediately lower my blood sugar. I am a healthcare data scientist, and I am fully aware of what a Diabetes diagnosis means for me long term. However, I still do not understand what it means in the short term and what steps I need to take. I remain confused and frightened.

I know that drug seeking is a difficult problem. I am sympathetic to the pressures that the ED clinicians are under and I know that there were dozens of people seeking primary care in the ED. I was not one of them. I was having an acute event, for which opioid treatment is the only reasonable cure. The Harris Health Ben Taub ED department simply did not triage me.

Despite vomiting multiple times in front of the only clinical person that I engaged with, I was never asked how I felt, what my symptoms were. I was asked “when this started”, and not much else.

After leaving Harris Health without having my symptoms considered and without treatment, I went to an Methodist Urgent Care center were I received prompt treatment. I did not instantly receive opioids there either, but the delay was commensurate with the time it takes to verify that I am not a frequent opioid user (i.e. not an addict, and not an abuser of opioids) then they treated my pain quickly and with compassion. They also performed a CT scan which confirmed the presence of a kidney stone, the results of which I am attaching to this submission.

Desired Outcome of the Compliant

I expect patients to be properly triaged by competent staff in the ED. There are digital mechanisms to determine scripts for opioid usage. I know this, because I designed and implemented at least a few of them.

My personal opioid usage history is a perfect example of someone who suffers from kidney stones. I have never sought opioid prescriptions outside of acute events. These events always correspond with follow up visits to my primary care physician, who then prescribes appropriate, non-pain related medications to treat kidney stones. Using only the SureScripts medication reconciliation process (which is required to a part of any Meaningful Use Certified EHR). Clinicians at Harris Health could have verified that I was not a “drug seeker” (which is BTW, an insulting and pejorative term)

In short, the data shows clearly that I am exactly what I claim to be: A person with a history if kidney stones, passing a kidney stone.

Presumably, Harris Health and Ben Taub are very willing to use prescribing history against patients in their ED. They use this information to deny access to opioids to patients they suspect of being recreational opioid users or opioid addicts.

The desired outcome of my compliant is that Harris Health will actually perform triage on patients, ensuring that patients who are in pain receive timely pain treatment.

The reason that my drug history is available to Harris Health is so that they can better treat me when I arrive. If Harris Health has access to this data, but either ignores it, or merely uses it to deny care, then they have betrayed the intent of the information system. In my opinion, that makes them guilty of defrauding the public of the more than $2 million dollars they received to install the Epic brand EHR system.

I am posting this to my personal website at http://fredtrotter.com

Updates

I will update this article with any information I receive back.

My political bias

I think, when one starts to write what could be a politically explosive blog posts, it is good order to reveal your political biases and opinions. I am about to write several, so this is a nice preface that I can just link to, in order to explain my perspective on current political issues.

Let me assure you. I join you, in your disgust for that other party. No matter what party you consider the other party and what party you consider “your” party.

I grew up conservative, in a household that had fought for the Reagan Administration in more ways than one. Modern “conservative” values look nothing like what I grew up with. I still find the core messages of the conservative ideal appealing. I do not want the government doing what corporations, or non-profits should be doing and tend to prefer small government.

I also find mainstream liberal ideas persuasive. The notion that no one should be afraid of getting sick and that sometimes, the governments need to step in when corporations or criminals start to abuse people who are not in a position to defend themselves.

I am utterly dissatisfied with Obamacare, which is much better than any current Trumpcare proposal. Obamacare is deeply problematic in many ways. But if it is in a “death spiral” it is only to the degree that such a spiral can be caused by the current administration pulling the rug out from underneath it. The currently proposed TrumpCare options are orders of magnitude worse. So bad in fact that I think they are more likely straw-man negotiation tactics between the middle-right and far-right components of the Republican Party.

All of which is to say, that if I have any biases, they are against every current political party. I did not choose to vote in the last presidential election, because I felt strongly that I had no viable political options. One candidate had demonstrated that she was very willing to “hard wire” her victory by rigging the outcome of the Democratic Party election. Everyone continues to emphasis how terrible the Russian hacking was, but the Democrats still wrote all the damning emails. And the only conservative thing about Trump is that he A. Not Hillary Clinton and B. willing to pretend to be against abortion on demand… which for the religious right meant that he was tolerable, despite being the anathema of everything else they believe in.

In short, I believe very strongly that its basically all bullshit, and both parties have completely betrayed the US citizenry by substantially betraying their own core values. This is likely the result of dark money in politics and the only political donations I am currently willing to give are to organizations like RootStrikers.

I have no illusions that the United States is the “best” country in the world. Everyone who says that is loading up the word “best” with their own desires, and then brow-beating the rest of us into submission if we disagree. But we are pretty badass country full of badass people who are talented, brilliant, assertive, clever and moral. Why are we being given such poor choices in our leadership?

As a healthcare data wonk, I will not mince words. As far as healthcare goes, here is the basic reality.: Its necessarily very expensive and everyone is pretending that if they were in charge then it would not be expensive. Obamacare at least was a respectable try at solving this problem, and so far Trumpcare is not a respectable attempt. I hope that changes, because if it does not it could be pretty bad, especially for poor people.

I hope Trump and Congress can fix this, because they have basically destroyed any thing they could that Obamacare needed succeed in order to ensure that their “death spiral” criticism is valid. Its like shooting an animal and then saying: “See, this here animal is wounded and useless. No good at all. Sad”

 

By undermining Obamacare, without having a viable replacement plan in place, Trump is taking an awful risk with millions of lives. I hope is his gamble pays off, for all our sakes.

Just wanted to be clear where I stood on things, since I think my readers have a right to know.

-FT