Is Health Data Privacy On Its Way Out?

As healthcare providers gradually improve their HIPAA data security and privacy compliance, one might think that the odds of a breach occurring are getting lower. Maybe that’s true within the provider organizations themselves, but there are forces outside of healthcare which will make it impossible to protect personal data in the future, according to a post on Axoblog.

The piece argues that the notion of data privacy is dying. “To the extent that emails and other communications meant for designated recipients are analyzed, scraped aggregated and stored it is the opinion of this author that the protection of PHI is illusory,” the article says.

As the piece correctly notes, unscrupulous companies and can learn a great deal about consumers by analyzing their Internet search history. And of course, there are social media stalkers like Facebook, which monitors Internet activity even when the subscriber is logged off. (It’s hard to believe that other Internet companies aren’t doing the same thing in a less public manner.)

By using a rich source like Facebook user data and aggregating it with information from other social media networks, outsiders can pull together a personal profile of users. This database could easily expose medical information that should be protected under HIPAA and HITECH.

And it’s not just Facebook data that is of concern. By buying available data from all the social media networks, then matching that data with commercial databases offering details such as address, phone number and location, it’s possible to develop an astonishingly detail portrait of individuals.

So what should providers do in the age of minimum privacy? Be aware of emerging threats, the author suggests:

  • Be aware that social media outlets aren’t subject to the legal requirements providers are when compiling health information.
  • Keep your eye on data aggregators, which are selling data to everyone you can think of, plus others you wouldn’t even have considered, including marketers, advertisers and researchers.
  • The government has only now begun trying to understand how social media networks handle privacy and how well they explain their practices to consumers
  • In the wake of Facebook scandals, social media giants might develop protocols for managing sensitive data, but they may fail at doing this, in which case the government is likely to step in
  • Though Facebook has been asked by regulators how the company manages and shares data, it seems that no one’s asking about the aggregation of data and how it is stored and protected

Now, I’d like to think the article described above is a bit too pessimistic. If nothing else, I’m not sure that the aggregation of other forms of data means that medical privacy will become impossible to defend. Still, the piece makes it clear that we have a long way to go before we can sure PHI is protected by companies like Facebook.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

   

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