Hide Your Info: Exploring the Lackluster Protection of HIPAA

By: Zach Finn

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was enacted in 1996, and has since become a touchstone for the protection of confidentiality and security of personal health information in the United States.

Or, so we thought. The rise in technology has advanced the way information is stored and shared. Biomedical databases store high volumes of information, ranging from personal external identifiers such as medical reports, to even individual genetic sequencing, exemplified by 23andMe’s and Ancestry‘s storage of genetic information. Large data and biobanks (a collection of biological samples, like blood and health information) create access to a plethora of quality human data, which prove to be valuable in medical research, clinical trials, and understanding genomics. But at what cost?

HIPAA requires medical and genetic information to be anonymized before being distributed and shared to third parties outside the relationship of medical providers and patients. Technology has created a loophole in HIPAA, through re-identification processes, which allows individuals to match medical information back to specific individuals using open source data. Re-identification, as of now, disarms HIPAA, rendering de-identified (anonymized) medical information basically unprotected from parties who obtain personal biodata through re-identification.

HIPAA nationalizes standards for protecting the privacy and confidentiality of individuals’ personal health information (PHI). It requires covered entities to provide individuals with notice when sharing a person’s genetic information. HIPAA is violated when a covered entity discloses personal and identifiable health information without the consent of the patient. These covered entities include healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses. Technology provides entities with the ability to de-identify and anonymize large data sets in order to share health information and be in compliance with HIPAA. Anonymization removes personal identifiers like names, addresses, date of birth, and other critical identifiers. HIPAA sets out requirements of what needs to be de-identified, and once anonymized, personal health information is shareable and HIPAA compliant.

Re-identification is the process to which materials and data stored in biobanks can be linked to the name of the individuals from which they were derived. This is done by taking public information and re-matching it the anonymized data. It sounds difficult, but a study concluded that 99.98% of Americans would be correctly re-identified in any dataset using 15 demographic attributes such as age, gender and marital status. For example, in the 1990s, one could purchase the Cambridge, MA voter registration list for $20, and link it to a public version of the state’s hospital discharge database to reveal persons associated with many clinical diagnoses.

HIPAA has yet to play catch up with the innovation of technology. The requirements for compliance in anonymization lack the sophistication and protective measures needed to combat the expanding use of re-identification practices. HIPAA’s privacy rule does not restrict the use or disclosure of de-identified health information, since it no longer is considered protected health information. This means that any re-identification of this earlier protected information is not subject to HIPAA. This ultimately demonstrates HIPAA’s weak protective measures, and the alarming concern of how easily accessible our genetic and medical information is to third parties.

Re-identification of HIPAA compliant anonymized information is not a violation of the statute. We must consider reforming HIPAA to acknowledge technology’s capabilities to bypass its security measures. One way an individual can ensure privacy of his or her genetic and medical information is by not consenting to sharing or storing this data. Covered entities must give notice and obtain consent before de-identifying and sharing biobanks. However, this comes with the price of stifling research, trials, and genomics. Hopefully we can figure out a balance between confidentiality and sharing private information, but it starts with drafting laws that actually protect our personal and most private information!

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