12-01Posted on Jun 29, 2012 in Formal Opinions
Opinion Letter No. 12-01
June 29, 2012
Hawaii County Fire Department Records
on Persons Rescued
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald asked whether the Hawaii County Fire Department (HCFD) must disclose the name, gender, age, and hometown of persons rescued (i.e.: persons who received HCFD assistance pursuant to fire, medical, rescue, and motor vehicle accident calls). HCFD did not object to disclosure of gender and ages of persons rescued.
The UIPA allows agencies to withhold records that are protected from public disclosure by federal law. To the extent that HCFD is subject to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the DHHS rules, 45 C.F.R. Parts 160 and 164 (Privacy Rule) promulgated under HIPAA, it must determine on a case by case basis whether HIPAA or the Privacy Rule allow or prohibit disclosure of a person’s identity.
HCFD must also determine on a case by case basis whether disclosure of hometowns of persons rescued, especially along with other information such as gender and age, could lead to discovery of the identity of an individual whose identity is protected under HIPAA. If so, then disclosure of the hometown is prohibited under the Privacy Rule. If not, then disclosure is not prohibited by the Privacy Rule, and, as the UIPA’s privacy exception does not apply to de-identified information, HCFD would have no basis to withhold the hometown under the UIPA.
Not all of HCFD’s records are subject to HIPAA. For HCFD’s functions that are not subject to HIPAA or the Privacy Rule, the UIPA’s privacy exception applies. The UIPA requires that, when the names of persons rescued by HCFD carry a significant privacy interest, that privacy interest must be balanced against the public interest in disclosure on a case by case basis to determine whether disclosure of that person’s identity is appropriate.
An individual does not have an inherent privacy interest in his or her hometown. When there is no basis under the UIPA’s privacy exception to withhold the name of a rescued person, there is likewise no basis to withhold the name of the person’s hometown. In instances when HCFD may withhold the name of a rescued person under the UIPA’s privacy exception, the issue of whether disclosure of the person’s hometown, without the person’s name, would amount to a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy must be determined on a case by case basis. When disclosure of a hometown could lead to actual identification of an individual whose identity is protected under the UIPA’s privacy exception, HCFD may also withhold the person’s hometown to protect the individual’s identity.