IEEE Digital Privacy Podcast Series: Episode 5


Dr. Ali TinazliA Conversation with Dr. Ali Tinazli
CEO, lifespin

Listen to Episode 5 (MP3, 18 MB)


Part of the IEEE Digital Privacy Podcast Series


Episode Transcript:

Brian Walker: Welcome to the IEEE Digital Privacy Podcast Series, an IEEE Digital Studio Production. This podcast series features conversations with industry and academic leaders as well as key stakeholders of digital privacy in order to help advance solutions that support the privacy needs of individuals. In this episode, Dr. Ali Tinazli shares his insights on digital privacy and its impact on healthcare, both for companies and individuals. Dr. Tinazli, thank you for taking time to contribute to the IEEE Digital Privacy Podcast Series. To get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in digital privacy?

Ali Tinazli: Okay, so my name is Ali Tinazli. I studied biochemistry and biophysics and in the corporate world was at Sony and HP. And most recently, I joined lifespin in Germany as CEO. And lifespin is a company digitizing healthcare. We are basically creating digital snapshots of metabolic phenotypes and making it basically machine redevelopment, some that we developed algorithms to look out for human health conditions. That's one aspect. On the other hand, I joined about three years ago a blockchain cybersecurity company called Softhread out of Baltimore, Maryland. I'm on the Board of Directors. And there we are also looking at blockchain based approaches on how to make healthcare basically more secure from a privacy standpoint. Because what we have to keep in mind-- and the pandemic even accelerated the digital transformation-- however, the healthcare ecosystems, they are undergoing a tremendous digital transformation from paper-based to electronic systems. But we also have to make sure that the newer digital systems-- they are also susceptible to human error and non-compliance, that's what we have to take care that the digital systems do a better job in the privacy compared to old school paper-based documentation.

Brian Walker: So, what are some of the challenges you face in protecting personal health information?

Ali Tinazli: First of all, why do I want to have personal health information digitally available? Ultimately, I want to have it for better outcome, for better experience as a patient. However, what are the challenges? The challenges are that when I have the health information digitally, it can be auto copied, right? And it's important to make sure that the information doesn't spread. Why is that important? Because I want to protect my personal information that's nature of-- that's the privacy I don't want to expose necessarily to the public. I don't want to expose it to corporations. I don't want to expose it to insurance companies, for example. And we all have to be aware that the health information actually is a tangible asset. So, there is actually a tremendous monetary value in health information, which is at least comparable to information in financial services. That means we need to be really cautious how we protect this information. On the other hand, as there is handling of health information, there are all the potential ways how to monetize that. Right? For example, when I as a patient decide that I want to participate in a clinical trial, then I can think of new as a clinical trial services, which are based on blockchain based smart contracts, so that I actually get as a patient immediately rewarded for participation in the clinical trial. So, that means how technology can basically match the individual patient with a larger clinical trial which then leads ultimately to better outcome for everyone.

Brian Walker: So, for individuals, what are the ramifications of sharing health information?

Ali Tinazli: Okay, first of all, I think we have to define what we do mean by sharing health information? So, I think it's important to speak about the good and the bad ramifications. I think let's start with the good ramification. The useful ramification, or the positive ones, are basically if I have, let's say, certain condition and I basically have to go from my primary care physician to the specialist, ultimately, I may get hospitalized and then again I go back to my primary care physician, it would be very convenient I think to have everything digital, let's say digitally available on your phone, for example. Or in a way that you can own your data virtually. And also, can master the access if you get access to your primary care physician to a specialist and so on. I think if technology can help me to take better control of my own data, that's a great thing. What's the negative? The negative is that I need to have a certain degree of technical literacy. That means I may not be able to expect this technical literacy from someone who is in his or her 80s or 90s, right? So, basically, I need a certain level of capability to deal with technology that I think one aspect that it may carry the risk that people in the middles who are not capable of using this technology would be excluded. That I think somewhere we have to find ways how to mitigate that. These are the different pros and cons or positive and negative impact I'm seeing.

Brian Walker: Dr. Tinazli, what are your thoughts on the balance between the public good versus personal privacy?

Ali Tinazli: Yeah, and here I think the COVID pandemic gave us a very good example of privacy versus public good. And I think which is still debatable, right? Let's say someone's tested for COVID, with whom is this person going to share the result with the restaurant owner, if the person wants to enter a place to have dinner, right? Let's say it's legitimate or not. I think when we look at it from a perspective of ending the pandemic, then I think it's important to have a healthy balance between individuals who have, let's say, a certain disease, like COVID, which may spread. But on the other hand, we also want to be cautious not restricting the people too much, because I think that is a constitutional topic in many countries in the world. And I think with the pandemic, governments have been somewhat pragmatic to basically do what seemed to be best at that particular time. But I think the question cannot be solved easily. And from my standpoint, let's say, individuals need freedom, and the freedom ends where I start harming others. That means during the pandemic, it was really wise I think to introduce certain measures like controlling vaccination, tracking diseased individuals. I think that's very legitimate. But on the other hand, it depends, I think, also on the opinion in the society, how much people are willing to give up. For example, in South Korea, the people could contain the pandemic pretty well because they had, let's say, very detailed tracking of diseased individuals. But this would not be possible to implement in other societies, maybe because of lack of digitized technologies, or maybe because of public acceptance.

Brian Walker: So, from a technology perspective, what are your thoughts on privacy by design?

Ali Tinazli: I think it's part of any sort of, let's say, newer technology solution in this field. And I think, I need to be able, I think, to level or to introduce layers of information. So, for example, I personally wouldn't mind if my neighbors would know how many steps I'm walking every day, right? I think that's like the first layer. Or let's say, what's your fitness metrics? I think these are pieces of information which are not very critical, which are not very delicate, and I think when we speak about privacy by design, let's say technical design, then I can really-- you have to be able to layer information based on let's say criticality. Right, for example, I wouldn't like necessarily if someone knows if I would have cancer, for example. That's a very personal thing. And so, I think we need to have technology solutions which allow me as the individual to layer my health information in a way that I can decide with whom I'm sharing how much with somebody. I may share with my fitness club some basic information about my body metrics. On the other hand, I may share with my employer perhaps some more level, or some deeper level of information. And so, on and so forth. But I think importance that we understand that there are tools, technology tools available which can provide this. So, when you look at blockchain enabled solutions in cybersecurity, just things, for example, then I think we have basically technology tools at our hands, it's more a matter of educating the market, developing the market, and then basically implementing these solutions, which I think will happen in the next ten years.

Brian Walker: How do you see the IEEE Digital Privacy Initiative helping to advance the technology space?

Ali Tinazli: I think the Initiative is very important. Because when we look at IEEE, IEEE is an international organization. I'm U.S. and German citizen. I used to live in the U.S., moved to Germany now, and I'm very happy that IEEE has branches all over the world. And I think having the forum educating, informing engineers about new policies, also about new technology solutions is of highest importance, because these are the engineers for developing the new product. And so, I think creating awareness on the level of engineers is extremely important and useful.

Brian Walker: So, in closing, do you have any thoughts for people who might be interested in learning more about digital privacy?

Ali Tinazli: I think it will be an important part of data science to be able to protect the data which I'm generating. Being able to protect the information, which I'm extracting out of the data. And to me it feels like a natural fit to basically equip data scientists with these tools, also create awareness of the data science side. Do we need to hold, let's say, study for that, like hold study classes. And I think definitely yes because it's not only limited to healthcare. Like data protection has been always an important topic in financial services, right? I think they have been even spearheading this field because it's a very delicate industry. But I think it will be of common interest, right? I think it would be definitely important to implement new formats on the education level. And I wouldn't start with that at the university. I would start with it already at schools. I think also with the U.S., social media, even younger kids are using social media now, if we like it or not, that's the reality. And I think creating this basic awareness of privacy, what does privacy mean on a digital level. That's, I think, very important.

Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Dr. Ali Tinazli. To learn more about the IEEE Digital Privacy Initiative, please visit our web portal at