Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Privacy for Ghosts

In many places, medical records are closed in perpetuity for reasons of privacy. This means that even records that are, say, 150 or years old are closed to researchers. This makes no sense to me, and I've always thought there should be a provision in state laws that all government records will be open after a certain date. After all, what kind of harm can come from allowing historians and genealogists to look at records that are twice as old as human life expectancy?

On her blog, Paula Stuart-Warren highlights an example of heavy-handed use of privacy laws; in this case, HIPAA* being applied to the records of a Civil War soldier. (Via Midwestern Microhistory)

*HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Not to be confused with HIPA, the Hawaii Island Paddlesports Association. They bear no responsibility.


Infinite Ancestors said...

There must be a balance.

Civil War may be far-fetched, but consider more recently deceased people for whom the descendants and heirs prefer privacy. If the direct descendants prefer privacy, why should the wants of more distant relatives, or generic researchers, have precedence?

Consider also cases of genetic conditions, which if made public, could put risks of abuse (insurance or employment discrimination, for example) onto the living descendants.

We have to remember that genealogy is a hobby, but invading the privacy of families can have serious real-world effects.

Jack said...

Well, I think more recent records are a different issue altogether. I understand the need to protect privacy; I just don't understand why privacy rules are applied without consideration of the age of the records. As records age, they become less invasive of the privacy of living people; but many privacy laws permanently close records.

I also agree that the effects on living people should be the primary consideration. But I've actually seen cases where researchers trying to discover information about their direct ancestor's medical history had a very difficult time opening the records, even though they were the only known heirs.