Sunday, October 18, 2009

NYT: Medical Records No Safer than Movie Rental Info

What do Netflix and your health insurer have in common? More than you might think, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

For starters, both collect personal data about, like your name, address, phone number, credit information, payment history, purchase behavior and preferences.

And both strip personally identifiable information from these records, which are then sold to researchers and marketers to ultimately better understand and target you as a consumer.

While that may be a little creepy, it’s nothing out of the ordinary and totally legal. But, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, it is possible to re-identify individuals associated with the data based on otherwise innocuous information we all leave around the web – like chat logs, Twitter feeds, online comments and blogs.

Similar to a scam artist rummaging through your trash for bank statements you thought you destroyed, researchers say that your online footprint can aid in re-identifying information that is otherwise scrambled and scrubbed.

And while it might just be a little embarrassing for your Netflix history to get out (What do you mean you rented Another Gay Movie?), health records carry heavier implications and could cause irreparable “social, professional and financial harm,” according to the Times.

The scary thing is that there’s really nothing protecting the consumer at this point. If companies scramble and de-personalize your data, they’re in the clear to use it however they want. And it’s big business.

According to George Hill, an analyst at Leerink Swann, a health care investment bank, the clinical information market represents $8-10 billion in sales annually.

Yet while there are no safeguards to prevent reverse-identification of consumer data, the risk is evident.

According to the times: In 1997, for example, a researcher identified the medical records of William Weld, then the governor of Massachusetts, by correlating birthdays, ZIP codes and gender in voter registration rolls and information published by the state’s government insurance commission.

In the Times article, Dr. Deborah Peel, director of a Texas-based watchdog group, likened consumer risk to the Paris Hilton Sex Tape: “Once personal health data gets out there … it is going to be out there forever.”

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