Emergent Medical Data

By Mason Marks

In this brief essay, I describe a new type of medical information that is not protected by existing privacy laws. I call it Emergent Medical Data (EMD) because at first glance, it has no relationship to your health. Companies can derive EMD from your seemingly benign Facebook posts, a list of videos you watched on YouTube, a credit card purchase, or the contents of your e-mail. A person reading the raw data would be unaware that it conveys any health information. Machine learning algorithms must first massage the data before its health-related properties emerge.

Unlike medical information obtained by healthcare providers, which is protected by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), EMD receives little to no legal protection. A common rationale for maintaining health data privacy is that it promotes full transparency between patients and physicians. HIPAA assures patients that the sensitive conversations they have with their doctors will remain confidential. The penalties for breaching confidentiality can be steep. In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services recorded over $20 million in fines resulting from HIPAA violations. When companies mine for EMD, they are not bound by HIPAA or subject to these penalties.

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