Updated: Use of Online Tracking Technologies by HIPAA Covered Entities and Business Associates

From U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) updated its guidance to regulated entities when using online tracking technologies. These technologies, used to collect and analyze user interaction with websites or mobile applications, must comply with HIPAA rules if the information gathered includes protected health information (PHI). Unauthorized disclosures of PHI to tracking technology vendors, such as for marketing purposes without compliant authorizations, are deemed impermissible.

The update emphasizes that regulated entities should ensure they disclose PHI only as expressly permitted or required by the HIPAA Privacy Rule. It provides guidance on the application of HIPAA rules to the use of tracking technologies on user-authenticated webpages, unauthenticated webpages, and within mobile apps. For instance, tracking technologies on user-authenticated webpages generally have access to PHI, and tracking technology vendors are considered business associates if they handle PHI.

Unauthenticated webpages, which do not require user login, usually do not have tracking technologies that access PHI. However, in cases where PHI is accessible, HIPAA rules apply. For mobile apps offered by regulated entities, information collected is generally considered PHI, and the entity must comply with HIPAA rules for any PHI the app uses or discloses. However, HIPAA does not protect information users voluntarily enter into non-regulated mobile apps.

Disclosures of PHI to tracking technology vendors must be specifically permitted by the Privacy Rule. If the vendor is a business associate, a business associate agreement (BAA) must be established. The use of tracking technologies should be addressed in the entity’s Risk Analysis and Risk Management processes. If there’s an impermissible disclosure of PHI, breach notification to affected individuals and the Secretary is required. OCR is prioritizing compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule in investigations into the use of online tracking technologies.