Privacy: Where are you now?

One of our customers recently shared a NY Times column about photos you post on the web revealing where they were taken. Geotags provided by some digital cameras and many smartphones with built-in GPS features indicate where the photo was taken. If you post a photo of your child’s at-home birthday party taken with geotags turned ‘on’ in the camera/phone you used, everyone who looks at the photo can also know just where you live.

The technology, while very useful in operating your GPS or helping you keep track of where your teenager is at this moment, is also a potential privacy threat because it embeds the longitude and latitude of where the photo was taken. 

While many people are not very concerned about this matter, others fear that this is just one more step in the gradual erosion of our ability to protect our privacy. This is largely because most people do not even know about geotags and have no idea that they can be turned on and off. The above-mentioned article by Kate Murphy points you in the direction of controlling who has access to where your photos were taken.

The Web site provides step-by-step instructions for disabling the photo geotagging function on iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Palm devices.

Those of us who work in the behavioral healthcare world have long been concerned with issues of privacy for our patients and consumers of our services. We work hard to assure that only appropriate individuals have access to their treatment records, demographic and other protected health information (PHI). In fact, the law requires us to assure that only those who have a right to access this information have the ability to do so.

What are the implications for geotags on the issue of PHI? Right now, you need to post a photo on the internet or utilize an application that specifically makes use of the geotagging capability of your device to reveal your location. What happens when that capability is not revealed to you…or when it is revealed in a use statement that is so dense with legalese that you do not even read it? Here is a scenario from a not very distant future.

As a case manager for a community behavioral health organization, I want to be sure that I can always reach persons who use our services in case of an emergency. As a result, I keep a listing of the phone numbers of all my clients in my smartphone. Any time a new client comes in or a current client changes their contact information, I synchronize my phone list with my computer list. It has become so easy to do over my wireless network at home and the office that I am always up-to-date. Besides, having the list with me when I make a home visit means I can confirm my appointments before I head to see the consumer. I only include first name and phone number so confidentiality is protected, and my phone is password-protected.

I know I am not supposed to, but I also use my phone for some of my personal activities. I like to surf the web when I am waiting to see a client or while sitting in the train station. I have not disabled the features of newgoogle that customize the advertisements I get to match the web surfing I do…in fact I kind of enjoy it. I don’t use Twitter very often, but I like to check in every once in a while. And the new video feature is a great way to see where my friends are when they tweet. Last week I tweeted from the train and from the park across the street from my client’s apartment. Sometimes, I insist my kids do video calls with me so I can see where they are. I never thought I would enjoy this new technology so much!

What’s wrong with this picture? Is the client’s PHI actually protected? Do you see any concerns in this scenario? How far are we from someone who telephones us being able to know immediately exactly where we are? Is the casual attitude of many people toward privacy and technology something to be concerned about? Is our ignorance about the technology we use acceptable?

What do you think…am I just a bit paranoid? Is the customer who sent me this article concerned about something that is of no consequence? Where do you stand on the issues around privacy and technology? Please share your comments below.

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