What is Confidentiality Law?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Confidentiality law is an area of the law pertaining to confidentiality in certain types of professional relationships. Many nations have laws addressing confidentiality issues, and the nature of these laws varies from country to country. Within a country, individual jurisdictions may have their own confidentiality laws to supplement the national law and safeguard the privacy of citizens. Violations of the law can result in civil and criminal penalties.

Doctors have ethical responsibilities to maintain the confidentiality of information confided in sessions, and these ethical obligations are often supported by confidentiality law.
Doctors have ethical responsibilities to maintain the confidentiality of information confided in sessions, and these ethical obligations are often supported by confidentiality law.

People like attorneys, doctors, counselors, and religious officiants have ethical responsibilities to maintain the confidentiality of information confided in sessions, and these ethical obligations are often supported by confidentiality law. In the United States, for example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) includes a number of provisions intended to protect privacy for medical patients. The law dictates how information can be collected, stored, and used, and includes strict bans on releasing confidential information without consent.

Some businesses might sue former employees if they break a confidentially agreement and share trade secrets.
Some businesses might sue former employees if they break a confidentially agreement and share trade secrets.

Protecting privileged communications is also important for people seeking legal, ethical, and spiritual advice in situations involving illegal activity, knowledge of illegal events, and other sensitive matters. People might reluctant to get counseling if their communications weren't protected by law, preventing people from receiving advice and assistance, making it important to protect communications for people in need of counsel. Sometimes this advice may lead a person deciding to coming forward with information or providing assistance with the pursuit of a legal matter; without the security of being able to seek advice confidentially, these people might never come forward.

HIPAA regulates who can speak to a doctor about another's health information, and requires waivers to alter those permissions.
HIPAA regulates who can speak to a doctor about another's health information, and requires waivers to alter those permissions.

Confidentiality is also important in journalism. In nations with strong protections for freedom of the press, sources are protected under confidentiality law. Being able to guarantee anonymity to sources provides journalists with access to information otherwise impossible to obtain, like insider information about a situation from a whistleblower concerned about how the situation is unfolding. Journalists in some regions have gone to jail to protect their sources, relying on tough confidentiality law in appeals to request release.

Governments are also bound by confidentiality law. Governments collect a great deal of information about citizens and they are expected to use it responsibility and appropriately. Abusing information, releasing private information, or using information collected in confidence for activities like prosecution can be grounds for penalties. For example, the United States Census maintains the confidentiality of the information it collects, including information about immigration status, only releasing records 70 years after creation. This allows people like historians to access those records for research while protecting the confidentiality of the people in those records at the time they are collected.

Psychiatrists and counselors maintain the confidentiality of their patients, so people don't have to be reluctant to seek help.
Psychiatrists and counselors maintain the confidentiality of their patients, so people don't have to be reluctant to seek help.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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