From savior to, in some people’s minds, perpetrator, as the pandemic has progressed, frontline health workers have become frequent subjects of public attention due to a lack of online privacy — not all of it welcome. An unfortunate side effect of their public-facing role in combating COVID-19, health workers are often victimized by individuals frustrated with pandemic restrictions or misinformed about health measures. Too often, this paradox has led to violence.
According to the Lancet, the Red Cross recorded over 600 acts of COVID-19 related violence against health workers in the first six months of last year alone — a figure which is likely only the tip of an iceberg.
Globally, there are now countless examples of health workers falling prey to everything from online intimidation to targeted attacks. While in Australia, hospital staff have been advised not to wear scrubs in public to cut down on the risk of attack; in the U.S., a nurse in Chicago was punched in the face while taking public transport.
Understanding Health Misinformation
Several factors are driving this wave of threats against health workers. Members of the public can wrongly see tools and procedures used by public health authorities as overly invasive. The proliferation of misinformation on social media amplifies this comprehension gap and leads to frontline health workers becoming targets for abuse.
The personal nature of processes like contact tracing has sometimes encouraged members of the public to believe that they are unfairly victimized or even stalked, a belief “confirmed” by social media. In a recent example highlighted by NPR, a public health official in Washington quickly found herself a target for online abusers after contact tracing an infected individual’s family. In this case, the family saw the contact tracing effort as an invasion of their privacy and complained about it on social media. These complaints, accusing officials of breaching their privacy, quickly went viral, and a barrage of threats to the official, including doxxing of her home address and contact details, soon followed.
Local public health surveys, an essential tool for minimizing the need for lockdowns, have also brought out the worst in some participants. In one example, a prolonged assault of racial slurs, threats, and intimidation against surveyors stopped a door-to-door COVID-19 surveying effort in Minnesota.
Lockdown Fatigue Makes Health Workers a Target
Despite soaring infection rates, the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has, in some places, fatigued public patience. This fatigue has catalyzed declining support for mitigation measures and, as a result, health workers.
As many people see prolonged declines in their livelihood due to pandemic shut down orders, health workers can become vulnerable scapegoats for frustrated individuals. With the pandemic still raging, many frontline medics now report growing levels of abuse from the public and a changing perception of their work.
In turn, the stress of dealing with an often dire health situation, alongside a discontented public, is leading to record turnover rates among public health professionals themselves. In a recent investigation, the Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press discovered that, in 38 states, over 180 public health leaders at local and state levels had left their posts since last April. In one high-profile example, Ohio’s health director. Dr. Amy Acton stepped down from her position following anti-lockdown protests at her home last summer. In Missouri, Amber Elliott, the health director for St. Francois County, quit her job after stalkers harassed her and her children.
Protecting Health Workers From Harassment
As health workers attract increasing amounts of unwanted attention from disgruntled members of the public, taking a proactive approach towards keeping your personal information private is essential. Minimizing the availability of information like your address, home phone number, and marital status won’t stop the abuse. However, it can make targeted stalking and harassment far more difficult for threat actors.
Recognizing this need for increased protection, a recent executive order in California has made health worker privacy a matter of public concern. As part of a series of actions surrounding COVID-19 mitigation, public health officials in California will now be able to keep their home addresses private under an expanded ACP (address confidentiality) program — a privilege previously extended only to crime victims.
However, in most other states, privacy protection for health workers is still lacking, and the ultimate responsibility for the safety of personal information rests with health workers themselves. Consequently, health workers are increasingly turning to online privacy services like DeleteMe that help people remove their personal information from public sources online.
Between 2019 and 2021, we have seen a 300% increase in the number of requests for email address removal associated with public health institutions. While the pandemic has certainly inflated this figure, at DeleteMe, we have seen medical professionals targeted for a long time. For example, in 2015, an anonymous individual scammed about 200 female clinicians into sharing personal stories about themselves, photos and videos, and other personal information.
Three Practical Tips for Protecting Your Privacy
While ultimately, both employers and public officials need to do more for doctors’ and health care workers’ privacy, medical professionals should also take proactive steps towards keeping their personal information secure. Here are three things that Abine recommends privacy-conscious health workers should do:
Google your name
If a disgruntled individual were to search your name online, would they be able to find out your personal information?
To see if too much of your data is exposed on the internet, sign out of your Google account, switch to the “Incognito” tab, or use a privacy-focused search engine like DuckDuckGo. By doing one of these three things before searching for your name, you’ll see the same information a stranger would without search results being skewed by your user profile.
Limit what you share online for privacy
As obvious as it sounds, leaving your social media profiles publicly accessible means that anyone can see everything you post. Instead, we recommend that you keep your profiles private and don’t accept friend requests from strangers.
However, even when your profiles are private, you should still treat them as if they aren’t. To limit your exposure to potential threats, it’s a good idea to refrain from posting pictures or information that are personally identifiable or too geographically specific. In other words, be careful not to share anything that a threat actor could use to find out where you live or who your family is.
Because someone can use them to connect you to your job, staying away from medical Facebook groups can help protect your identity. If possible, you should also avoid using your real name on your social media accounts (at the very least, consider using your middle name as your last name). Finally, when it comes to an employer using social media to promote their business, let them know that you don’t give your approval to have your name published without your consent.
Keep your name and address private
After searching for your name online, you might be shocked to see it appear next to other snippets of your personal information, including your birth date or even your home address. This proliferation of personal information is thanks in no small part to data brokers.
Data brokers are private companies that gather publicly available information about you, mostly from publicly accessible records. Records such as voter registration files, motor vehicle registrations, and court files can contain vital personal information. Responding to the personalized marketing industry, data brokers trawl through these records and collate your information into saleable packages available to anyone willing to pay.
For medical professionals, this means that if a disgruntled patient wants to find out where you live, often, all they have to do is look for your name on a site like Whitepages, Intelius, or Spokeo. Fortunately, even though the process is often lengthy and time-consuming, you can delete your name from most data broker sites.
To stop your home address from reappearing next to your name, we recommend, where possible, amending your publicly accessible records and using a PO box instead of your actual home address. Essentially, a lockable box located in a post office, a PO box allows you to receive mail and register for public service without putting your real address into the public record.
Privacy Will Remain Important for Medical Professionals
Even though ongoing vaccination is a step towards eliminating much of the threat that COVID-19 poses, public distrust and health misinformation are likely to remain virulent. For future medical professionals, maintaining privacy will remain a significant challenge.
In response, better privacy protection needs to be put in place to inoculate health workers against threat escalation. However, health care workers themselves can also use privacy protection services alongside being proactive around minimizing their online footprint. For tomorrow’s health professionals, keeping personal information private is only going to become more critical.