Can You Ever Really Maintain Your Privacy?

Privacy gurus say avoiding curious employees at companies may be impossible.


March 24, 2008 — -- It's no secret that that your doctors, your pharmacists, your bankers and even government employees have access to most of your personal information -- from the prescriptions you take to the countries you visit.

But how often do these presumably trustworthy individuals snoop through your private documents, perhaps even discussing your latest Xanax refill or your abundance of bounced checks over dinner with friends?

A lot, according to privacy experts.

"How often do the tabloids get stories they shouldn't, and how often do people snoop?" said Jay Foley, executive director of the Identify Theft Resource Center and all-around privacy guru. "All the time."

Just last week, Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had their privacy infringed upon when three employees at the U.S. State Department peeked at their passport files. Two of the three three have since been fired, and the third is facing "disciplinary action," according to the department.

Earlier this month, employees at the UCLA Medical Center, recently a frequent stop for pop-wreck Britney Spears, were fired for peeking at her hospital records.

And in October 2007, workers at the New Jersey hospital where actor George Clooney and his girlfriend, Sarah Larson, were treated after a motorcycle accident were suspended for snooping at the star's medical file.

True, it's likely that few people aside from Clooney need to worry whether inquiring minds have any interest in their bunion removals or gall bladder surgeries. But the simple fact remains that most of us have personal information we'd prefer to keep private.

Ensuring absolute privacy may be impossible. But there are a number of measures -- ranging from simple things like paying cash for services to more creative methods like creating pseudonyms -- that can help keep you one step ahead of devious document snoopers.

While laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA, which is supposed to prevent unauthorized individuals from viewing medical records, do exist, privacy experts told that when it comes down to it, not much can be done to ensure that nobody snoops.

After freqent examples of the laws seemingly failing to provide impenetratable security, many consumers may want to try to take their privacy into their own hands.

But according to Foley, even going as far as to ask each individual who handles your private records to sign a privacy waiver -- a document holding them legally responsible if any of your secrets make it onto the front pages of newspapers or become fodder during a dinner table discussion -- is unlikely to work.

"For a standard employer, a doctor or a pharmacist, you have to have employees and staff -- someone has to do the billing, maintain the records and run the office," said Foley. "And to vouch for each and every one of those people 100 percent is a long shot."

"Because if someone snoops, the employer is hung out to dry," said Foley.

So one curious employee might land your doctor or pharmacist in court, said Foley, and the employer would then be held responsible. No employer is likely to agree to sign a waiver for that type of liablity.

Grant Hall, author of "Privacy Crisis: Identity Theft Prevention Plan and Guide to Anonymous Living," told that because snoopers are inevitable, there is only one surefire way to ensure your privacy.

"Don't leave a paper trail," said Hall, who recommends that the people pay cash for all medical procedures they'd like to keep private or prescriptions that they'd like to keep out of the hands of lower-level employees.

Aware that paying cash and not using insurance can be expensive for the average person, Hall also suggests creating a pseudonym.

"Use a pen name for everyday business, and you don't have any way to be tracked," said Hall, who said that securing your privacy takes "dedication" and "hard work."

While he acknowledges that some people's curiousity often crosses the line, Foley urges those who may be tempted to snoop to consider how they'd feel if it happened to them.

"Imagine you have a party at your house -- how are you going to feel when a 65-year-old guy who shows up starts wandering through your underwear drawer?" said Foley. "You're going to be angry, bent out of shape." He added that he wished more companies held overly-curious employees legally responsible for their wandering eyes, rather than just firing them

"The worst part of it is you're violating my trust. I shared this information with you because I had a need and a requirement to do so," said Foley. "And for someone to then go in there and look at it as a curiosity seeker just doesn't sit well."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events