What Constitutes Breach of Confidentiality?

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To get assistance, many people reveal secrets and private information to legal, business and medical professionals. However, if these professionals reveal the secrets, the exposure can harm the people who confided in the professionals. To prevent people from becoming victims of confidentiality breaches, federal laws establish provisions that articulate what constitutes a breach of confidentiality in different professions.


When doctors assess and treat patients, the patients must usually reveal very intimate information pertaining to their personal lives. For physicians to adequately and effectively apply appropriate treatments, the patients must be honest and thorough regarding the information they provide. Additionally, patients are more likely to provide this essential private information to the physicians if they trust that the information will never be revealed. Thus, to help facilitate an honest relationship between doctors and patients, federal laws assert that it is illegal for doctors to discuss or expose any information or communications disclosed by patients during the treatment process. This applies to all physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists, and all doctors must maintain the confidentiality even after the deaths of their patients. Legal exceptions include if the patient gives permission for the breach, if a judge orders the disclosure or if the patient threatens to do harm to himself or others.


For lawyers to provide competent and accurate legal advice to clients, the clients must be honest. However, clients are more likely to divulge honest and private information if they are confident and certain that lawyers cannot reveal the secrets. Thus federal law prohibits lawyers from exposing the information revealed by clients during professional communications. This is the attorney-client privilege, and the privilege assures clients that information disclosed to their attorneys will never be exposed or used against their interests, even if they confess their guilt. For instance, lawyers cannot speak to the media, refer to the police or testify in court regarding the details or communications revealed to them by their clients. Private information may not be covered by the privilege if a third party--or someone other than the client and attorney--is intentionally present to hear and participate in the conversation, or if the client expresses an intent to commit a crime.

Employee Information

Employees must often provide personal identification information to their employers. Such information includes home addresses, Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers, bank account information and credit card information. If employers reveal these details about their workers to other sources, the employees may become victims of identity theft, robbery or other criminal activities. To prevent this, federal laws establish that it is illegal for employers to sell or reveal the personal information.

Company Information

Many employees work for companies involved with manufacturing and distributing original products. Usually the details of how to make the products are kept confidential to avoid competitors from stealing or duplicating the ideas. When employees are terminated from their positions at these companies, they can cause severe damage to their former company by revealing trade or manufacturing secrets to competitors or to the public. As a result, many companies have employees sign employee confidentiality agreements that prevent the workers from disclosing company secrets in the event of termination.


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