records so that they can investigate what might have happened. In some cases, the victim’s investigations are stymied because a victim’s medical record now has personal health information on another person (the thief), and some hospitals argue that HIPAA prevents them from turning over documents that contain information on other people even under these circumstances.
Spillover Privacy Implications of Receiving Health Care Services

In April 2005, the Target Corporation (operators of a large chain of department stores that often include pharmacies) began to require photo identification for the purchase of certain over-the-counter cold medicines. Identity information is recorded in a database along with the purchase so that Target can limit customers to two packages every 2 weeks and can see if they have purchased other cold medicine from Target. The stated reason for the policy is that these medicines contain pseudoephedrine, which can be converted to methamphetamine (also known as crystal meth)—an addictive and illegal drug.12 Although Target states that it obeys all federal and state laws regarding the privacy of such information, this policy was promulgated by Target on its own initiative and not at the behest of any state or federal law.

For many years, medication has been provided by prescription or over the counter, and the privacy implications of such medications were clear. Prescription drugs required the presentation of identification under the rationale that such medications were specifically prescribed for the individual in question by a physician who had examined him or her and made a determination about the appropriateness and safety of the drug. Over-the-counter medications could be purchased by essentially anyone, without presenting identification.

Whether or not Target’s purpose in adopting this policy is appropriate or socially beneficial, the policy changes this traditional paradigm by requiring presentation of identification and storage of such information for over-the-counter drugs in pursuit of non-medical goals. As a rule, consumers have many choices about where to purchase over-the-counter medications, but Target’s policy regarding cold medicines does illustrate how privacy can be eroded in a service as vital as health care.


C. Benjamin Ford, “Target Wants Photo ID for Cold Medicine,” The Gazette, February 15, 2006, available at

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