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UCLA Health System, News of the World Cases Highlight Privacy Breaches

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By now you have probably heard that media giant Rupert Murdoch and his son James are shutting down the infamous British tabloid News of the World amid a swirling privacy scandal. The 168-year-old paper will publish its final edition tomorrow. The News, which has a reputation of shady reporting and investigative techniques, seemed to finally have crossed the line after it hacked into the voicemail of a missing girl. Public outcry and allegations of interfering with a police investigation resulted in Murdoch’s News International Ltd. decision to cease operations.

Not as widely publicized was the announcement yesterday that UCLA Health System will pay $865,000 to federal regulators to settle accusations of privacy violations that occurred between 2005 and 2008. Although UCLA has not admitted liability, it is believed that employees inappropriately accessed the medical records of over 1000 patients – many of them celebrities – during that time. The widespread disregard of patient privacy has led to increased penalties for noncompliant hospitals.

The landmark Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) contains national minimum standards to protect individuals’ medical information. Although HIPAA imposes fines on health care providers who disclose patient information without proper permission, it does not create a private right of action for the affected individual. In other words, if your doctor discloses private information about you without your permission, you can report him to the Office of Civil Rights, but you cannot sue him for violating HIPAA. Fortunately, some state laws do provide for the recovery of damages in these situations.

With more and more of our lives being reduced to digital formats, protecting individual privacy has become a major issue. The events of this week underscore how easy it is to become the victim of overly inquisitive eyes.