File-Sharing Software Potential Threat to Health Privacy

The personal health and financial information stored in thousands of North American home computers may be vulnerable to theft through file-sharing software, according to a research study published online in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

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El Emam’s CHEO team used popular file sharing software to gain access to documents they downloaded from a representative sample of IP addresses. They were able to access the personal and identifying health and financial information of individuals in Canada and the United States. The research for the study was approved by the CHEO ethics board.

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A sample of the private health information the CHEO team was able to find by entering simple search terms in file-sharing software:

  • an authorization for medical care document that listed an individual’s Ontario Health Insurance card number, birth date, phone number and details of other insurance plans;
  • a teenage girl’s medical authorization that included family name, phone numbers, date of birth, social security number and medical history, including current medications;
  • several documents created by individuals listing all their bank details, including account and PIN numbers, passwords and credit card numbers.

Read more on Science Daily.

The research article is:

Khaled El Emam, Emilio Neri, Elizabeth Jonker, Marina Sokolova, Liam Peyton, Angelica Neisa, Teresa Scassa. The inadvertent disclosure of personal health information through peer-to-peer file sharing programs. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 2010; 17: 148-158. The full article is available online.

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