Protecting Your Privacy

Learn about protecting your personal information from unwanted use.

Privacy

As you navigate life, whether filling out forms, shopping online or in stores, or using social media, you are sharing your personal information with companies and other organizations. You want to make sure that both you and these organizations consider your privacy. Privacy includes the ways that your personal information is:

  • collected
  • used
  • stored and protected
  • shared with other organizations and how you are able to determine how it is shared.

Companies, known as data brokers, compile information about your income, family size, email addresses, stores and websites you visit, the brands you buy, credit cards used, hobbies, and your demographic information to create a profile about you and your lifestyle. Some of the information you give willingly, but other bits of your personal information are collected in ways you may not realize. Data brokers often collect location-based data from the GPS on your mobile phone, the fitness tracking bracelets you wear, or from apps. These brokers then analyze all your information, develop scoring models to help them understand your behavior, and sell these consumer profiles to retailers and marketers.

Retailers use your information to offer targeted special promotions, customize the ads you see, and even the prices you are charged for items. While this can be a bonus and help you get good deals, it all comes at the cost of your personal privacy. Unlike credit reports or scores, you cannot access or review the data files that have been created about you, or even know the data brokerage companies you should contact to correct inaccuracies. These data reports can also result in discrimination, where some consumers are only targeted with high interest loans or inferior financial products.

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Protect Your Privacy

While many companies take steps to protect your personal information, there is no guarantee that it is protected to the degree that you'd like. Some companies may share or sell your information to other organizations. If a company's databases are hacked, you could be a victim of phishing scams or identity theft. Take steps to protect your privacy and control how your personal data is used:

  • Ask companies how they will use your personal information.
  • Find out how your personal information will be stored and protected from hackers and data breaches.
  • Read the privacy policies from companies that you interact with. Don't assume that they will provide the level of privacy that you want.
  • Look for privacy statements on websites, sales materials, and forms that you fill out. 
  • Only provide the purchase date, model and serial numbers, and your contact information on warranty registration forms.
  • Opt-out if you do not want the company to share your personal information with other companies.
  • Find out what protections an organization will put in place, such as free credit reports or credit monitoring, if your information was compromised in a data breach.
  • Change your password for your e-mail account and for a company's customer portal, if the company reports that they have had a data breach.
  • Be careful about what you post on social media. Data brokers may scrape your online profile to create a consumer file about you and sell it to other companies, without your knowledge.
  • Use cash rather than electronic payment options, if you want to keep your purchase behavior private.
  • Beware of using cell phones in stores or using the free Wi-Fi in a store. By using these networks, retailers can track which aisles you visited and items you looked at. 
  • Disable cookies when shopping online to prevent companies from tracking your online browsing habits.

Check with your state or local consumer agency to find out whether state laws help protect your privacy. 

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Health Information Privacy

Know Your Rights

Personal information you give to your doctor is shared with insurance companies, pharmacies, researchers, and employers based on specific regulations. The privacy of your health records is protected by federal law (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA), which:

  • Defines your rights concerning your health information
  • Sets rules and limits on who is allowed to receive and or see your health information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provides information about your rights under HIPPA.

Protect Your Medical Privacy

Know your rights and exercise them. Here are some steps to take to ensure the accuracy and privacy of your medical information:

  • Talk with your doctor about confidentiality concerns. Discuss the uses of your health information and what is required for insurance purposes.
  • Read the fine print. Most authorization forms contain clauses allowing information to be released. You may be able to restrict some disclosures by revising the form. Be sure to initial and date your revisions.
  • Request a copy of your medical records so you know what's in them.
  • Register your objections to disclosures that you consider inappropriate. Contact the specific entity involved, state office, or the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Be cautious when providing personal information for "surveys," health screenings, or "sweepstakes" or on a health websites. Be sure to check their privacy policy, ask how the information will be used and who will have access to it.

Report Medical Privacy Violations

If you believe that a person, agency, or organization covered under the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules violated your health information privacy rights:

  • File a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
  • Call the OCR for recorded information about filing complaints at 1-866-627-7748 (TDD: 1-800-537-7697).
  • Contact an OCR regional office for additional information. 

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