Tag Archives: privacy

Protecting, Sharing, and Hiding Behind Private Health Data

New Orleans      Most of us think our own health is our business, that is until we find out it is big business, and that everyone wants to make it their business.  Health data is now a quiet corporate battlefield and a public issue at the same time because of the pandemic.  Who knows who – or what – will win, but it is unlikely that we will come out of it well, given the bad odds and the big players?

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, the whole lot of them want to get into the health data game.  In Google’s case it may be because their search engine is already the first doctor that many of us seek out for the slightest malady.  There’s a fight to acquire Fitbit, the popular device that monitors calories, heart beats, and exercise.  Apple watches don’t exactly do that, but, as they say, “there’s an app for that.”

Hospitals are required, since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, to show progress in moving fully to digitize all patient medical records.  The big tech companies see a gazillion dollar opportunity there, and there’s nothing inherent in most of our experiences with hospitals that should make any of us feel comfortable with their data policies and protection.

Our legal rights and protection are under the care of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA, as it is known, passed in 1996.  The problem, underlined recently in a report in the Wall Street Journal, is that the law has become outdated over the last 25 years given the tech explosion.  “Doctors, hospital, pharmacies, and health insurers are bound by its requirements.  But technology companies offering health-related services via sensors, apps and online portals may not be.”  Believe me, if there’s a pinprick of an opening in the law, the tech disrupters will drive a truck through it, and over us.

While most of us are thinking we’re protecting our good genes, bad germs, and everything we know about them and keeping it to ourselves, we may be voluntarily putting our stuff on the auction block digitally.  On the other hand, during our current Covid-19 public health crisis and the struggle to achieve contract-tracing to stall the epidemic, authorities want and need more information about us, making the strong argument that we should shed some privacy for the sake of the common good.  Google and the gang have offered apps in a number of countries to allow people to self-trace, so to speak, through our cellphone’s GPS.  They swear that they won’t share or sell, and maybe they are telling the truth.  Let’s hope so.  Like I said at the beginning, we’re caught twixt and between.  We want to do right by our community, but we also don’t want our privacy for sale.

Our union recently handled a case in an independent living community home where we argued that co-workers had the right to know that a consumer had tested positive for the coronavirus.  The company tried for a while to claim that they had no responsibility to inform the workforce or the other clients in the home because of HIPAA.  Of course, they were hiding behind their irresponsibility, but even having the gall to wave the HIPAA flag, seems yet another argument that it is time to tighten it up and bring our protections up to date.

We’re on the short end of this stick given all the players, but, if there is one thing the tech companies and healthcare industry have taught us, it is to get ahead of their truck or they will run us over.  Right now, we’re just roadkill.


Pandemic Privacy and Discrimination

New Orleans      Businesses are madly lobbying Congress for liability protection from lawsuits by their workers.  They are clear that they want their staff to return to work, but they do not want to have to vouch for their health on the job.  Business must be worried that if their boy doesn’t make it back to the White House, then there might be a real Occupational Health and Safety Administration and hell to pay.  Face it, for business all workers are essential.  The economy doesn’t run without workers.  It is an interesting irony that in a pandemic, all capitalists become Marxists when they are forced to remember that nothing works without workers.  It is not paradoxical that the same business capitalists want to turn to the politicians they own in donor servitude to save them from their workers now that they are reminded, they are all critical.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) must not be equally under the grip of the White House.  They issued an order recently forbidding businesses to discriminate in recalling and employing older workers over 65-years of age, fearing that these workers might be more susceptible to Covid-19, and that they would be liable.  It is easy to predict that in the magical mystery tour of layoff and recall now, that few seniors may get this message and many more may be lost in the EEOC filing bureaucracy forever as they seek a callback.

Local 100 United Labor Unions represents many state employees in Arkansas.  As the state determinedly tried to reopen, regardless of the spiking numbers of cases and deaths from this coronavirus, they were desperate to curtail remote workers and have them back in state offices.   Toney Orr, 100 field director and Arkansas state director, shared with me the survey questions sent to state workers.  The state wanted to know how they obtained groceries or prescriptions.  They wanted to know when and where they went outside of their home.  Where they traveled and why?  You get the message.  The state wanted to investigate and essentially regulate their nonwork and at home activity to build its own case for compelling them to come to the office using the information to establish that they were not quarantined in their own homes.  Tell me that’s not an invasion of privacy.  Where’s the ACLU?  Workers with underlying conditions are facing return to office demands. What do conservative Republicans call state intervention in the personal lives of people?  Overreach, right?  Bad news, guys, workers have rights to privacy, too.  I guess I mean, don’t they?

Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM have all agreed to stop selling police facial recognition software until there are rules and regulations that govern surveillance.  We need the same protection for workers now on remote work, key stroke monitoring, boss drive-bys, and especially requirements to come back to offices until they are guaranteed to meet health and safety standards.

No workers are safe in a pandemic.  Neither are their bosses who must be both responsible and accountable.