Identifiers depend on context

Can you tell who someone is from their telephone number? That’s kinda the point of telephone numbers, to let you contact someone. And indeed telephone number is one the 18 identifiers under HIPAA Safe Harbor.

But whether any piece of information allows you to identify someone depends on context. If you don’t have access to a phone, or a phone book, or any electronic counterpart of a phone book, then a phone number doesn’t allow you to identify anyone. But once you can call a phone number or enter it into a search engine, then the phone number is identifiable. Maybe.

What if the number belongs to a burner phone? Then it would be harder to learn the identity of the person who owns the number, but not impossible. Maybe you couldn’t learn anything about the owner, but law enforcement officials could. Again identifiability depends on context.

An obvious identifier like a phone number might not be an identifier in some special circumstance. And an apparently useless bit of information might reveal someone’s identity in another circumstance.

HIPAA’s Safe Harbor Rule tries to say apart from context what kinds of data are identifiable. But if you read the Safe Harbor Rule carefully you’ll notice it isn’t so context-free as it seems. The last item in the list of 18 items to remove is “any other unique identifying number, characteristic, or code.” What might be an identifying characteristic? That depends on context.