Protecting the Privacy of Consumer Records

Kristin Kelly, associate professor of political science poses for a portrait near Mirror Lake on September 9, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Kristin Kelly, associate professor of political science poses for a portrait near Mirror Lake on September 9, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

SHARELINES

Kristin Kelly, associate professor of political science. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Kristin Kelly, associate professor of political science. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The digitalization of daily life has made a number of things easier and faster – from paying bills to transferring records to simply communicating – but it also poses new threats to the privacy of consumers. Will your mobile device provider sell information about you to a third party? Will a server containing your credit card number be hacked? How secure are your electronic medical records?

Those threats, how they’re perceived by Americans – particularly regarding medical records – and what can be done about them are the focus of research being conducted by Kristin Kelly, associate professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The big question – and the objective of my research – is to really gain an understanding of what people are concerned about with regard to their privacy,” says Kelly, who received the Faculty Excellence in Teaching at the Undergraduate Level from the UConn Alumni Association in October. “Politically, privacy doesn’t typically have a lot of traction with most people, and it’s a somewhat murky concept.”

However, in the United States there are efforts to speed the transition from paper medical files to electronic records, which can easily be shared by multiple medical providers. While this effort aims to enhance efficiency and reduce mistakes, it also raises questions: Who “owns” these records, who is responsible for safeguarding them – and do patients care?

Kelly’s research includes case studies, such as interviews with patients.

“A lot of people are surprised by the amount of personal data about themselves that is out there,” she says. “But you either have concerns about it, or you don’t. Some see privacy protections as roadblocks, while others have a good deal of anxiety about their personal information.”

Kelly says there is something of a generation gap between consumers. Older people are generally more concerned about their privacy than younger people. She notes that her undergraduate students in a course having to do with privacy rights were relatively savvy about their personal privacy, but came out of the class more alarmed about the issue than when they started.

“When they thought about the larger, long-term implications of how data is exchanged, and things like companies that exist solely to collect personal data, it certainly brought them a new level of awareness that led them to change their behavior as a result – especially on their phones and Facebook,” says Kelly.

She adds that her research has found there is not a great deal of confidence among consumers that companies have their best interests at heart.

“Consumers are interested in having a fair deal. They want to know that steps are being taken to protect sensitive data,” she says. “When it comes to medical records, consumers need to be educated, and plans designed by doctors and health care providers to address the needs and concerns of patients with regard to privacy need to be established.

“There needs to be proactive public policy about these issues. What can businesses and [medical] practices do for people to help protect their privacy with some measure of assurance? Finding answers to this is one of the major goals of this research.”