Monday, April 07, 2008

Privacy: a thing of the past?

Hospital employees often need to access patients' medical records. At other times, the access them for fun:
Last month, 13 UCLA Medical Center employees were fired and several others were disciplined for accessing Britney Spears’ medical records. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that another employee had been let go for viewing the confidential file of ’70s “Charlie’s Angels” icon Farrah Fawcett, who had been receiving cancer treatment.....

Though the Spears and Fawcett cases are the ones that received media attention, employees in offices campus-wide can easily find themselves snooping in the files of normal people going about their daily lives at UCLA.

Employees at Wisconsin's WE Energy utility also enjoyed access to private private customer records as a perk of their jobs:
A landlord snooped on tenants to find out information about their finances. A woman repeatedly accessed her ex-boyfriend's account after a difficult breakup. Another obtained her child's father's address so she could serve him court papers.

All worked for Wisconsin's largest utility, where employees routinely accessed confidential information about acquaintances, local celebrities and others from its massive customer database. ....

"People were looking at an incredible number of accounts," Joan Shafer, WE Energies' vice president of customer service, said during a sworn deposition last year. "Politicians, community leaders, board members, officers, family, friends. All over the place."

Sometimes people use their access to databases not for fun but for profit as in the case of at least 90 UC Irvine students whose tax refunds were stolen:

At least 90 University of California, Irvine graduate students have reported to campus police that they were the victims of identity theft, by people who fraudulently filed tax returns using their names and social security numbers to collect refunds, campus officials confirmed today.

Most students discovered the thefts when they tried to file their tax returns electronically, and were informed by the IRS that their returns had already been filed, officials said.

While you should shred private information before putting it in the trash, there is little one can do to protect oneself from these threats unless one wants to drop out of school, turn the utilities off, and refuse medical care.

PREVIOUSLY, on the subject of privacy, courts have ruled that you have no right to privacy if you send your hard disk in for repair. Also, courts were disputing whether e-mail should be considered private or not.

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