By: Margaret Young Levi
On September 15, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a Policy Statement cautioning that health apps and connected devices that collect or use consumers’ health information must comply with the Health Breach Notification Rule and notify consumers when their health data is breached.
The Health Breach Notification Rule (codified at 16 C.F.R. § 318) protects individually identifiable health information created or received by vendors of personal health records. The Rule requires vendors of personal health records to notify U.S. consumers, the FTC, and sometimes the media when there has been a breach of security of unsecured identifiable health information. Persons that fail to comply with the Rule may be subject to monetary penalties of up to $43,792 per violation, per day.
The Health Breach Notification Rule became effective in 2009, but the FTC has not enforced it to date. However, because health care applications continue to proliferate and to collect increasingly personal and sensitive health information, the FTC issued this Policy Statement to place health apps on notice that the Rule will be enforced going forward and to clarify that they are considered to be “vendors of personal health records” covered under the Rule.
The FTC explains that the developer of a health app or connected device is considered a “vendor of personal health records” under the Rule if it is capable of drawing information from multiple sources, such as a combination of direct inputting by a consumer, syncing with a consumer’s fitness tracker, or even interfacing with the phone calendar. The Rule does not apply to vendors of personal health records who are already covered by HIPAA.
In addition, the FTC reminds vendors of personal health records that a “breach of security” is not limited to cyberattacks by third parties, but includes any acquisition of identifiable health information of an individual in a personal health record without the individual’s authorization. The FTC states that “[i]ncidents of unauthorized access, including sharing of covered information without an individual’s authorization, triggers notification obligations under the Rule.”
If a breach occurs, then health apps should examine state data breach notification laws to determine if they apply as well.