Michael Coco writes:

I have never considered myself to be at the forefront of the newest technology. Those familiar with the Technology Adoption Lifecycle might even classify me as a “laggard.” For example, I don’t own a Blu-ray player, a first-generation iPod nano controls the music in my car, and the only reason I bought an iPhone 5 is that my iPhone 4 broke and buying a new iPhone 5 was actually cheaper than fixing my iPhone 4. P.S., buying an iPhone 6 is not on my current radar screen.  I do, however, use most mainstream technology and social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn (I am not a dinosaur, yet). When my son was born last month, I received several messages on my Facebook account, but I ran into trouble when I tried to read the messages on my iPhone.

When I attempted to read my Facebook messages as I had done in the past, I was annoyingly surprised when a little critter popped up and informed me that they had “moved” to a new messaging system and that I needed to download a new app. As a laggard, I am reluctant to download new apps. Most people would find my iPhone very boring – I don’t even have Angry Birds. Naturally, I refused to download the app. I went online to see if there was a way to decline the app, and what I discovered was alarming. Many people, like me, have apparently already expressed annoyance that they were required to download an app for something that worked perfectly well to begin with, but the more troubling information surrounding the app was its privacy and permissions concerns.

When I started digging, I learned that the new Facebook Messenger makes several “permissions” requests in certain devices; such requests include permission to access your contacts, call logs, camera, microphone, text messages, and make phone calls.  There has been widespread criticism aimed at the intrusive properties of this new app, and some bloggers say it resembles “spyware.  People who are entrusted to secure confidential information, such as attorneys and health care providers, should take care when downloading apps like Facebook Messenger. I don’t mean to pick on Facebook Messenger with this blog entry; it is merely a current example. To be fair, many other applications request similar permissions and gain access to various parts of your phone or personal device and you probably already have these applications installed (unless you are a paranoid laggard like me). Apps like Facebook Messenger request such permissions to improve efficiency and make a better product for the end user. As more toys are added to personal devices, more and more apps will integrate and access different areas of your personal device.

As permissions from apps increase and overall privacy decreases, health care providers and others should be careful when both entering sensitive information, such as protected health information, into a personal device and downloading applications that could be used to access such sensitive information. If you must place the names of patients or clients in your personal device, or if such information may come involuntarily to your device from another person, do not include any notes related to sensitive information. And, above all, make sure not to just check the acceptance box to use the app unless you actually read beforehand what you are authorizing the app provider to do with your information.  I would appreciate recommendations from people who know of any ways to secure or separate data within a personal device to protect it from being accessed by other applications.

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[Michael Coco handles a range of corporate matters, focusing his practice primarily in the area of health law. As a former ER staff nurse and chemist, Michael has in-depth insight into such topics as FDA approval of medical devices as well as hospital compliance with federal and state laws and regulations, including privacy and security of health information and professional standards.]