Support the news

Your Personal Health Information Isn't As Safe As You Think

This article is more than 6 years old.

It was almost child’s play.

Using a computer, an Internet connection and information available publicly online, researchers from the Whitehead Institute at MIT were able to figure out the identities of nearly 50 people who had submitted personal genetic information for a research study — information that purportedly had been “de-identified” so as to protect the subjects privacy.

Cracking the supposedly secret code turned out to be ridiculously simple, Yaniv Erlich, a Whitehead human genetics researcher, told the New York Times. “Oh, my God, we really did this. I had to digest it. We had so much information.” Erlich’s team quickly told the National Institutes of Health about the vulnerability of the information. The agency has taken steps to make re-identifying research subjects harder to do.

There is no way to protect your privacy today except to pay cash to a doctor who will keep your records on paper.

Dr. Deborah C. Peel, Patient Privacy Rights Foundation

For one thing, we've seen too many hackers getting into big data bases. Nothing is that secure on the Internet. Besides, a $1.5 million fine for heatlh privacy offenders? That could be chump change, just the cost of doing business, for unscrupulous groups seeking to profit from your health data. And mine.


This program aired on January 28, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

+Join the discussion

Support the news