Is it really a crime to have wandering eyes? In short, yes. Well, at least when it comes to the personal health information of other people. HIPAA has, at least to some degree, been scoffed at over the last several years. It seemed to be one of those laws enacted without any real weight. The laws were written and laid out “clearly” (this, of course, is a subjective term) but with no real threat of punishment for violating some of them.
The times, they are a changing. Dr. Huping Zhou is the first person who has been convicted and sentenced to prison time for what some would simply call curiosity or a wandering eye. He has essentially now become the poster child for HIPAA violations demonstrating to the nation that HIPAA violations can and will be prosecuted.
Different sources tell the story with slightly different details, but the gist of it is as follows. Dr. Zhou, a surgeon from China, was working as a researcher at UCLA. At some point during his time there he began perusing the medical records of some of his superiors—and other high-profile people, such as Governor Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, and other celebrities. How exactly it was discovered that Dr. Zhou was snooping around I cannot find anywhere. This is especially interesting as it is noted that there was never any evidence or indication that Dr. Zhou had any intent or plan to sell or use the information he found improperly. Regardless of how he was found out, in the end it was sad news for Dr. Zhou. In January he pleaded guilty on 4 misdemeanor counts of illegally reading confidential medical records. A judge has recently sentenced him to pay a $2,000 fine and spend four months in federal prison.
OK, honestly, the first question that comes to mind for me when I read these types of stories is this: Why does anyone care about the health history of anyone else? But personal curiosity aside, the second question that came to mind after reading up on Dr. Zhou was if the punishment really fit the crime. Was the judge a little heavy-handed when passing down his sentence? Are HIPAA violations like this really fairly punished with time in federal prison? When so many heinous crimes flash across headlines these days, does it really seem necessary to punish Dr. Zhou’s curiosity with such a severe penalty? I am all for protecting an individual’s privacy. And HIPAA does need to be taken seriously and followed. But I’m not sure we are going about it the right way if this is the direction we’re headed.