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Privacy of Emergency 911 Call Demi Moore

I’ve written before on the issue of whether 911 calls should be public [link no longer available]. The recent release of the Demi Moore 911 call raises the issues once again. From CBS News:

The tape of the frantic 911 call from actress Demi Moore’s Beverly Hills home Monday night is out and, reports CBS News national correspondent Lee Cowan, the scene sounds a lot more dire than her publicist had let on.

After Moore was rushed to the hospital, a statement said she ‘d be seeking professional help for exhaustion and her overall health.

“The 911 tape really indicates that this is a much more serious situation than we were first led to believe,” says US Weekly’s Melanie Bromley. “We’ve been told it’s exhaustion that she’s suffering from, but you can tell from the tape that there’s a very desperate situation there. She’s having convulsions and she’s almost losing consciousness. It’s a very scary tape to listen to.”

Why is this public? Many 911 calls, like the one with Demi Moore, involve requests for medical treatment. Typically, whenever any doctor, nurse, or healthcare professional learns information about a person, it is stringently protected. A healthcare provider who breaches medical confidentiality can face ethical charges as well as legal liability for the breach of confidentiality tort. In addition, there may be HIPAA violations of the healthcare provider is HIPAA-regulated. 911 call centers are not HIPAA-regulated, but the operators are in a special position of trust and are often providing healthcare advice (and calling for healthcare services such as ambulances). If the call from Demi Moore’s home had been to a hospital or a doctor or any other type of healhcare provider, public disclosure of the call would be forbidden. Why isn’t a 911 call seen in the same light?

I believe the release of 911 call transcripts to the public violates the constitutional right to information privacy. The cases generally recognize strong privacy rights whenever health information is involved. States with laws, policies, or practices that infringe upon the constitutional right to information privacy might be liable in a Section 1983 suit. I have not seen one yet, but it is about time something sparks states to rethink their policies about making the calls public.

The rationale for making the calls public is to provide transparency about the responsiveness of 911 call centers. But this can be done in other ways without violating the privacy of individuals. The main use of the Demi Moore call being public is to serve as grist for the media to learn about her problems. This doesn’t make the 911 system safer or better; it just makes the tabloids sell faster.

Originally posted at Concurring Opinions.

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy and data security training. He also posts at his blog at LinkedIn, which has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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