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Antivaxxer Steve Kirsch threatens to release private health information

Tech bro turned antivaxxer Steve Kirsch emailed the director of Te Whatu Ora a threat to release names from a stolen New Zealand Ministry of Health database. It did not go well

Last week, I wrote about how tech bro turned rabid antivaxxer Steve Kirsch had incompetently “analyzed” a dataset from New Zealand containing protected health information (PHI) in order to spin the dataset as showing that COVID-19 vaccines were dangerous and killing people in droves. Then he extrapolated from his risibly unstatistical estimate that the vaccines were killing roughly one in a thousand people who received them in order to come up with an estimate that the vaccines had killed over 13 million people worldwide. He had (almost certainly) illegally obtained the dataset from a “whistleblower” named Barry Young, who turned out to be a database administrator for Te Whatu Ora, the New Zealand Ministry of Health Agency in charge of administering the nation’s universal health insurance plan and had abused his position to steal part of the 12 million record database containing approximately 4 million records. (Mr. Young also had the arrogance to go initially under the pseudonym Winston Smith, after the protagonist of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.) He called his announcement MOAR, or the “mother of all revelations.” I called it a failed kaboom, along the lines of the old Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Marvin the Martian and his attempts to blow up the earth, which were always thwarted by Bugs Bunny.

Marvin the Martian
The reception to Steve Kirsch’s talk reminds me a bit of Marvin the Martian. Where’s the “kaboom” after his MOAR?

I’m not going to go into much detail about just what Kirsch got wrong, as I wrote a long post enumerating the many erroneous assumptions and errors in analysis, not to mention a failure in basic plausibility that any vaccine or medication could cause, for instance, 675,000 deaths in the US and not be noticed immediately, given that there are only around 3 million deaths a year in the US and that would be an increase in deaths by nearly, which would make the vaccines instantly the second largest cause of death in the US after cardiovascular disease. The claim just didn’t pass the smell test, except for a conspiracy theorist like Mr. Kirsch, who thinks that the public health establishment is so incompetent that it didn’t notice and/or so evil that it didn’t report such mass death. In addition, he keeps claiming that he didn’t release PHI because he had anonymized the database, although PHI encompasses more than just names and, by having received the database, he still has access to PHI. Indeed Te Whatu Ora has issued an announcement stating that some of the patients in the “anonymized” database could potentially still be identified:

However, its chief executive Margie Apa now says that someone with expert technical skills may be able to identify a very small number of individuals, some of whom have died.

“Once our forensic work is complete, we will contact the families of those that could be identified,” she said.

The health agency was also looking into the possibility the person who leaked the data took other information.

Of course, although it’s unlikely that New Zealand will try to extradite Mr. Kirsch for the database breach, if this had been a US database, he could be potentially in big trouble for a violation of HIPAA. Come to think of it, he might still be in trouble given that he somehow got his hands on a Medicare database several months ago whose analysis, or so he claims, shows the same result. Of course, it never occurs to him that the reason they show the same result is probably because he did the same flawed analysis and thus produced the same systematic errors that he did when he analyzed the New Zealand database.

His access to the Medicare database was probably illegal too, as he basically admitted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, which I took a screen shot of, given that he might well delete that one too:

Kirsch Medicare Admit
Um, accessing a database containing PHI without authorization is illegal.

In the interim, Susan Oliver posted a very good additional deconstruction of Mr. Kirsch’s nonsense:

In my first post, I also documented how Mr. Kirsch’s analysis was so risibly bad that even his fellow antivaxxers were distancing themselves from him. (Heck, even Kim DotCom and “inventor of email, Shiva Ayyadurai thought it was crap, which should tell you something, even as Mike Adams at Natural News loved it and is portraying Barry Young, the man who stole the data and gave it to Mr. Kirsch, to a “whistleblowing” martyr facing a seven year sentence for the crimes of which he is accused.) Of course, Mr. Kirsch accepted the criticism magnanimously and humbly. Just kidding. As he always does when criticized, Mr. Kirsch lost his freakin’ mind and started churning out post after post of statistical drivel based on the same dataset claiming that the vaccines are killing way more men than women, attacking fact checks, and just rehashing his original claims.

Now he’s also engaging in a bit of blackmail, threatening to release the names of people who died after COVID-19 vaccination:

Translation: “Nice ‘anonymized dataset’ ya got there. Be a shame if someone released names, so that my horde of rabidly antivax fans could harass the grieving families.”

I included the response to this post because it’s James Lyons-Weiler, a longtime antivax “scientist” whose antics, misinformation, and conspiracy theories I’ve written about many times before. It wasn’t clear to me whether he was being sarcastic about Dr. Laxton’s statement being a “threat” or whether he was making fun of Mr. Kirsch. (I was hoping the latter.) Whatever his intent, I note that Mr. Kirsch apparently deleted his post, because it isn’t there anymore. I also have to wonder about Te Whatu Ora’s claim that the data had been anonymized and that only a “small number” of people might be identified. Mr. Kirsch’s threat seems to indicate otherwise.

I also note that Mr. Kirsch’s threat has made the news in New Zealand, for example, in this story published in the New Zealand Herald, Te Whatu Ora Covid-19 data breach: Social media threat to release private patient information.

Later in the thread, someone suggested something to Mr. Kirsch:

His threat did not go unnoticed:

Yep. That’s pretty much it, Lisa.

And:

Pretty much, although maybe not. Mr. Kirsch has gone so far off the deep end that a fair number of antivaxxers are distancing themselves from him. It turns out that you can be too far off the deep end even for antivaxxers.

But perhaps the must succinct comment was:

Indeed, I myself would personally encourage Mr. Kirsch to book a flight to New Zealand and then show up at the offices of Te Whatu Ora and demand a meeting with its director Fepulea’i Margie Apa. I’m sure that she would be more than happy to accommodate him in order to hear how he got his hands on the database and what his take is on it, although she would probably want a few additional key people to attend the meeting, you know, from the New Zealand Police, so that Mr. Kirsch could meet Mr. Young in person, if you know what I mean. (Maybe they could be cellmates.)

The bottom line here, though, is that Mr. Kirsch is a bully. His go-to move when cornered and criticized is to threaten and, if he thinks he can do it safely, to lash out in some way, sometimes siccing his large social media following on the target of his ire. For example, when a doctor who used Twitter under the name Dr. Canuck criticized him and made fun of him for dodging the scientific debates that he claims to crave, Mr. Kirsch’s go-to move was to dox Dr. Canuck and then threaten to sue him. Given Mr. Kirsch’s large Substack and X following, this move led Dr. Canuck—understandably—to leave social media for a time and go silent. Hilariously, when I called Mr. Kirsch out for being a doxxing bully, instead of threatening to sue me, he just whined on his Substack. (As is the case for many, if not most, bullies, if you stand up to Mr. Kirsch, he usually backs down.)

Mr. Kirsch’s threatening to release PHI from the stolen database is just another example illustrating how he is a bully who, when cornered, threatens and lashes out. This time, though, I rather suspect that someone—perhaps his lawyer—told him that making public his emailed threat to Ms. Apa to release PHI from a stolen New Zealand database was not a good idea, leading even someone as deluded as Mr. Kirsch to realize that maybe he’d better back off. That’s all to the good, but an utter antivax crank still has the database, along with all the PHI in it, and no one knows the number of other antivax cranks

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

33 replies on “Antivaxxer Steve Kirsch threatens to release private health information”

The other part of it is that this threat is a clear confession not just that he has the data, but that it’s not safe in his hands. If his earlier claim was that the anonymity in the data cures the problem, he can no longer credibly say so. I am not an expert in criminal law, and certainly not in New Zealand’s, but I expect they have options, if they decide it’s worth it.

New Zealand also has privacy laws and privacy torts that the victims may choose to use for civil lawsuits.

Yup. Basically, Kirsch just admitted that he illegally received PHI and that he’s willing to release names, which would no doubt lead to the harassment by his antivax minions of families already harmed by the loss of a loved one.

Seems to me that an anonymized version of this data should always be readily available to the public, particularly if the government had a hand in mandating the vaccines. If not, its reasonable to infer the data is negative wrt the vaccines.

Seems to me that an anonymized version of this data should always be readily available to the public, particularly if the government had a hand in mandating the vaccines.

It is incredibly difficult to ensure data is completely anonymized; the safest way to keep sensitive data safe is to keep it unreleased.

If not, its reasonable to infer the data is negative wrt the vaccines.

Only if you’re predisposed to conspiracies.

So, you got a couple of billion dollars to spare to maintain and update this database of every single person’s total health history, but also somehow keep it totally anonymized?
How are you even going to collect this data, especially in a country that doesn’t have a single-payer system?

I remember long, long ago there was some dang fool here who thought that a lifetime health database for every single person in the US would be a trivially easy thing to set up and maintain and that it would also be simple to keep everyone’s data private.

They were very, very wrong and a lot of people showed how they were wrong from every possible direction. For starters, the volume of data alone is prohibitory.

But with you we all know it’s not about the data, it’s about you hating vaccines. No data in the universe would satisfy you.

“Seems to me that an anonymized version of this data should always be readily available to the public”

It is. It is called a published clinical trial.

Keeping personal data genuinely anonymous is a computationally hard problem. The US Census Bureau, among other organizations, has worked on this, because individual people’s census data is supposed to be confidential for seventy years.

Idle curiosity, or the desire to pursue a political agenda, are not exceptions to that, and shouldn’t be. That’s true whether the political agenda is attacking vaccine mandates or defending them.

“Seems to me that an anonymized version of this data should always be readily available to the public, particularly if the government had a hand in mandating the vaccines. If not, its reasonable to infer the data is negative wrt the vaccines.”

Funny how objecting to invasion of privacy becomes hiding data when it suits John. Yet, the rest of his life is spent objecting to government interference with his freedom. If you’ve got nothing to hide then what’s your objection John?

It’s reasonable to infer from their behavior that no matter how extensive the data made available to them, antivaxers will either misrepresent it, claim it’s false and/or make up stuff to fit their preconceived notions.

See if this attempt works:
If you discuss this story, you may think as I did that you pronounce Te Whatu Ora quite like it is spelt: That’s wrong.
Whatu is pronounced fatu. Several sources with audio.
I wonder if Steve-o got it right.

re Steve Kirsch, in general

I’ve been reading more of his SubStack lately as well as Naomi Wolf, Celia Farber, Igor and the usual suspects
and I can only speculate that with my particular background and 20+ years surveying alt med/ anti-vax/ contrarianism on the net,
I could probably make a fortune if I chose to concentrate on mis-information/ dis-information/ scaring people whilst flattering them.
HOWEVER I would need to lie like hell and be dishonest as fuck.

I told my SO how RFK jr brags that at hiking spots he stops people with babies and scares them about vaccines and how other anti-vaxxers report doing the same.
He was shocked that anyone would do that.
Maybe I’m in the wrong business.

I also love how RFK Jr. regularly lies and, when confronted by his past antivax statements, has the audacity to claim that he has never told anyone not to vaccinate their children.

Denice, while fortunes are made doing all sorts of things, you could probably make a modest income just by having a substack where you express your sincerely held views.

People will come if you discuss things that interest your readers and keep them engaged.

Unfortunately, with precious few exceptions, the really big Substack subscription money tends to flow towards the utter cranks, COVID-19 minimizers, antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and right wing provocateurs. Were I to move this blog over to Substack and make it subscription for some of my posts, as many Substackers do, I doubt I would be able to garner anywhere near the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars a year in Substack subscriptions that people like Steve Kirsch, Vinay Prasad, Alex Berenson, etc., do. In fact, I doubt I’d be able to garner one-tenth, or even one one-hundredth of the loot that these people do. Crankery, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories sell. With only one exception that I can think of (Your Local Epidemiologist), science-based Substack content does not.

Also, let’s not forget how little Substack owners are concerned that they’re now monetizing outright Nazis.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/11/substack-extremism-nazi-white-supremacy-newsletters/676156/

Also, let’s not forget how little Substack owners are concerned that they’re now monetizing outright Nazis.

Yup. I read the complete cop-out of “but we need to to be mindful of all sides and points of view” bs where a head honcho of substack tried to justify continuing to allow nazis to post despite the site’s behavior guidelines. Letting nazis (and other horrible people) use your site as a megahorn for their views is [for a very mild description] terrible.

Eric Topol also has a big substack also. Misinformationkills from Milwaukee has a substack too, but she has too many unmonetizable mental issues so she has no subscribers. (she is borderline IMO)

My estimate is that if you create a substack you would have a financially noticeable number of paid subscribers in a year or so.

Maybe you can create a new line of useful content like “breast cancer treatment secrets”, like writing on chemotherapy or radiation treatments, just discussing such issues as a medical insider.

The problem with substack, for you, is lack of pre-moderation of comments.

“(she is borderline IMO)”

And of course we’re treated to arm chair diagnosis and ableism.

@ Igor:

I already have enough money and several sources of income. Orac is correct: popular SubStacks usually involve conspiracies, mis-information or right wing politics.

I’ll follow up Orac’s other response to you here as well. You help spread lab-leak CTs which are similar to vaccines-cause-autism in the following way:
people who actually study the subject know why it is very highly unlikely in great detail, just as I’ve said repeatedly that there are volumes of research in diverse areas of inquiry that converge to show that autism originates prenatally. People who persist in that delusion either are lying or never looked into research sufficiently to discover the real issues that have been studied for decades. They somehow missed all of it. I wonder why?

Many anti-vaxxers/ denialists/ contrarians make obscene amounts of money selling mis-information and products reliant upon that mis-information. One popular alt med doctor is worth over 100 million USD. Another small timer is worth 15M at least. Another is hard to research because most of his assets are located overseas. They live in estates which you can find on the net. Writers like Kirsch et al attract like-minded readers who have certain traits such as wanting to be unique, special, ahead of the herd, insiders, superior to the mode. They are suspicious and have paranoid fears of experts, universities, authorities and the media which they would substitute with themselves and other self-appointed prophets. They seek out material that has people worried such as the economy or health conditions or angry at current conditions, cultivating a culture of fear and grievance. So they bitch as they pat each other on the back for being revolutionary iconoclasts.

Most of those I regularly survey have NO real background in the areas they discuss. One prime rabble rouser has NO listed education because his mother tore him out of school at age 9 and he studied television production at age 40; his accomplice is listed as an actor/ stuntman. Wolf’s PhD is in poetry and she had issues finishing that and with reporting numbers in general. Farber’s fame comes from aids denialism.
Most of the Covid denialists earn money from Substack and selling books and remedies on-line.

I also have enough money and multiple sources of income; in fact, I am considering retiring. But I opened a substack anyway, it is not a money making enterprise for me, the money is a minor side benefit.

Regarding the origin of Covid-19, unfortunately you are on the wrong side of history on this one; but it is probably too difficult to admit.

Regarding conspiracies: you and another prominent poster here also believe in conspiracies: how rich and powerful people like the $100 million dollar doctor Evil conspire to deny lifesaving medical treatments to the victims of their propaganda. That is a conspiracy theory (possibly having some roots in reality, like other CTs) and, if played right, can appeal to certain people.

@ Igor:

Concerning Covid origins:
I’ll take my chances and agree with Orac on zoonosis.

About that 100M USD doc I listed: it’s Mercola and he circulates conspiracies along with his supplements/ books which may inspire customers to disregard realistic help.

My raison d’etre is
1. to counteract mis-information/ dis-information that alt med/ anti-vaxxers spread that can harm people. ( If a person believes that green juices can prevent/ cure cancer
they may wait too long and not get reasonable care.
If people become terrified of vaccines, they may become very ill from viral illnesses that are easily preventable),
2. to expose how they operate by manipulating information and followers’ emotions AND
3. how they profit immensely.

All of this is readily available on the net: I have included names, websites, quotes, dates, figures etc…. since 2008.
No CT necessary:
they came, they misled, they got rich.

-btw- I included Mercola here – who is actually a doctor.
The others usually I focus upon are NOT MDs/ DOs.

Okay, you keep presenting the idea that covid came from a lab, but why do you believe it came from a lab? And what good does making something like covid do?

Whether or not it’s achieved total global saturation or not, it hasn’t killed the majority of the world’s population, according to you and your ilk it’s actively working to undermine trust in the system that supposedly created it and it’s most likely to kill people most likely to fall in line with medical consensus, so it’s done the opposite of what these evil masterminds desired.

Are those evil geniuses who are supposedly able to create a supervirus from scratch really so dumb as to screw it up that badly?

You say you’re skeptical, but why aren’t you examining and trying to understand what motivates these human monsters you seem to have discovered. If you figure out what makes them tick perhaps you’d have better luck turning people against them and and reaching whatever your end goal is.

@Silex, we do NOT know the motivation of people who created this virus.

It could be an unintentional lab screw-up (unlikely given the circumstantial evidence).

It could possibly have been designed as part of an arsonist-firefighter plot to show how scientists could “save the world with vaccines”.

Ralph Baric worked on both the vaccine and the virus at the same time. Evidence: the DEFUSE proposal and Nature article “SARS-CoV-2 mRNA Vaccine Design Enabled by Prototype Pandemic Preparedness” both authored by/with him.

It could be financially motivated, as most arsonist-firefighter plots are.

Or it could be darkly motivated by worse intentions, sort of a “destroy the world” button.

The evidence for the latter is that the Covid pandemic, entering its sixth calendar year, shows no signs of abating and is not getting “milder”. It is not a good thing to be reinfected twice a year. With JN.1, likely half the people in the USA will get sick with it.

Millions already died from Covid.

Excess non-Covid mortality is also likely mediated by Covid.

It is not “just a cold”, as many of my fellow skeptics believe, sadly.

I love how you claim to be so “science-based” and rational and then lay down blather like the word salad above that is nothing more than conspiracy mongering based on cherry picked sources with damned near zero science behind it other than carefully cherry picked science.

Seriously, and you wonder why I do not take you seriously.

We do know the most common motives of people spreading disinformation about SARS-CoV-2’s origin and discouraging vaccination against Covid-19.

It’s an obsession with getting attention and desire to make $$$ off gullible adherents through sales of books and supplements, as well as through speaking engagements and Substack subscriptions.

A few fantasize about attracting the opposite sex by advertising their pureblood status on dating sites or parading around in public wearing inane antivax t-shirts

Plotting tto kill everybody ? Showing that vaccines will save world ? You should not write horror stories. These are old plots.DEFUSE proposal.
Instead:
We therefore evaluated mRNA formulated in lipid nanoparticles (mRNA–LNP) as a delivery vehicle for MERS-CoV S(2P), and found that transmembrane-anchored MERS-CoV S(2P) mRNA elicited more potent pseudovirus-neutralizing antibody responses than secreted MERS-CoV S(2P) (Extended Data Fig. 1a). Additionally, consistent with protein immunogens, MERS-CoV S(2P) mRNA was more immunogenic than wild-type MERS-CoV S mRNA (Extended Data Fig. 1b). Immunization with MERS-CoV S(2P) mRNA–LNP elicited potent pseudovirus-neutralizing activity with a dose as low as 0.1 μg and protected transgenic mice expressing human DPP4 (288/330+/+)22 against lethal MERS-CoV challenge in a dose-dependent manner, establishing that mRNA encoding S(2P) protein is protective.
You could do Google Scholar search for Baric MERS CoV to get his paandemic preparednes studies

Denise: we’ve repeatedly seen that Igor has 0 respect for facts or anything based on evidence through his repeating of falsehoods about covid and vaccines, and studies about them, after it’s been explained to him why he’s wrong.

Just above he tripled down on his devotion to the “lab” origin conspiracy:

Regarding the origin of Covid-19, unfortunately you are on the wrong side of history on this one; but it is probably too difficult to admit.

I’ve disagreed with the view that there was a chance that he could be swayed from his dangerous conspiracy mongering: is there any reason left to think he might be moved to away from his current fiction-based view of things?

@ ldw56old:

You’re probably right: he’s most likely unreachable.
But remember that contrarian readers/ newbie lurkers here might agree with him so we should counter him as Orac does repeatedly. He’s very visible.

I was staggered to see the number of commenters on that tweet who thought that taking & releasing private health records was fine & dandy. At one point Kirsch told me that the dead don’t have any privacy rights. Alas, he was wrong; the NZ Privacy Act covers the personal information of the dead as well as the living. While the executor of an estate may release it, I’m willing to bet that the “whistleblower” didn’t ask.

“Whistleblower” because there’s a law here that protects whistleblowers, called the Protected Disclosure Act. Our brave maverick “whistleblower” chose not to go down that route.

They think it’s fine and dandy to break the law and do unethical things, as long as it’s in the service of what they view as a higher purpose. Then, of course, criticizing and prosecuting those who do things like illegally stealing a database full of PHI and threatening to release names is portrayed not as people correctly criticizing those who have done wrong and the law correctly prosecuting wrongdoing, but rather at evil forces “persecuting” brave maverick heroes.

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