Health data privacy concerns are at the heart of U.S. Supreme Court’s cell phone ruling

In a demonstration of just how widespread health data privacy concerns have gotten and the pervasiveness of smartphones as a personal health tool, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts cited these trends in an opinion on cell phone searches by police. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that police must get a warrant […]

In a demonstration of just how widespread health data privacy concerns have gotten and the pervasiveness of smartphones as a personal health tool, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts cited these trends in an opinion on cell phone searches by police. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that police must get a warrant before they search cell phones.

An article by Modern Healthcare highlighted the relevant parts of Roberts’ opinion:

“An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD,” Roberts said. The collection of precise geographical location information, he said, has been “a standard feature” on smartphones, which can “reconstruct someone’s specific movements down to the minute, not only around town, but also within a particular building.”

The ruling overturned a case involving a criminal conviction in the California state appeals court decision Riley v. California, and affirmed a federal appeals court decision, vacating a criminal conviction in a second case, United States v. Wurie.

The news was especially welcomed by Jim Pyles, a principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm, Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville, who told Modern Healthcare that it was good news for advocates of patients having control over who sees their healthcare information. There has been an ongoing struggle between patients’ consent rights over disclosure of their medical records and healthcare providers, researchers and other commercial entities in getting less-fettered access to those records.

So what else does this mean for data privacy in healthcare? For one thing, it underscores the importance for everyone to care about the privacy of their personal health data, whether it’s their blood glucose levels or pregnancy. It also illustrates the need for protecting the data on our phones as more connected devices and portable health records will mean that health data once restricted to a filing cabinet in a hospital is more available than ever.

It also shows how successful mobile health companies have been at reaching consumers. Mobile health applications account for some of the 33 apps average smartphone users have, whether they use them frequently or not.