Data Privacy, Put to the Test

To the catalog of corporate “bigs” that worry a lot of us little people, add this: Big Data.

It was not a good week for those who guard their privacy. First, we learned that Apple and Google have been using our smartphones to collect location data. Then Sony acknowledged that its PlayStation network had been hacked — the latest in a string of troubling data breaches.

You’d have to be living off the grid not to realize that just about everything there is to know about you — what you buy, where you go — is worth something to someone. And the more we live online, the more companies learn about us.

But to what extent do others have a right to share and sell that information? That is the crux of a data-mining case that had arguments last Tuesday before the Supreme Court.

The case, Sorrell v. IMS Health, is ostensibly about medical privacy: Vermont passed a law in 2007 that lets each doctor decide whether pharmacies can, for marketing purposes, sell prescription records linking him or her by name to the kinds and amounts of drugs prescribed. State legislators passed the law after the Vermont Medical Society said that such marketing intruded on doctors and could exert too much influence on prescriptions.

But three health information firms, including IMS Health and Verispan, along with a pharmaceutical industry trade group, challenged the law, saying it restricted commercial free speech. Access to prescription records, IMS Health says, helps pharmaceutical companies market efficiently to doctors whose patients would most benefit from specific drugs.

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