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February 7, 2003

Customers' Private Records Found in Trash

from Eyewitness News, ABC, Channel 11
by Sonya Pfeiffer

A shocking breach of privacy has been uncovered by an Eyewitness News investigation. For the second time in two years, we've found local Eckerd stores simply tossing your private records in the trash.

news photo
(Photo illustration: Martha Brinson)

It seems pretty disgusting, yanking full trash bags out of dumpsters and digging through the rejected contents. But criminals do it all the time, especially from drug stores where personal information can be turned into a refilled prescription. And that's just the kind of information we found when we picked up what this Eckerd threw away. Prescription labels with names, addresses, phone numbers, doctor information and prescription information.

We took our trash to Annie Anton, a privacy expert at NC State. "They are not honoring the agreement they made with their patients."

[Editor’s note, NC State University: Dr. Annie Anton is an assistant professor of software engineering in the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science at NC State University.]

Anton says she's not surprised at what was not shredded, but she is disturbed. "We'd never think that our information would be available in a dumpster behind a drugstore, but you have to put yourself in the mind of people who are clamoring for that kind of information in order to do wrong things."

We found a half dozen different prescription labels. We called all of these people and none wanted to go on camera. But several people called me back and said they went directly into the Eckerd store once we alerted them, and whatever explanation they got made them feel better.

But the only explanation Eckerd gave us was a fax, which states their privacy policy: "Our pharmacists and pharmacy associates are trained to maintain and protect the privacy of Eckerd customers at all times. We periodically review the procedures and strive for 100 percent compliance."

As for exactly what part of the system failed here, we don't know, and Eckerd refused further comment.

Anton says the bottom line is look out for yourself. "We have a personal responsibility, an ethical responsibility to our community to guard this information. Kids can get a hold of this, high schoolers can get these prescriptions."

We know no one will get their hands on these, though. We shredded everything we dug out of the trash.

Online producer: Shaun Chavis Benchi


Media Contact: Dr. Ana (“Annie”) Anton, aianton@burdell.csc.ncsu.edu
For more information, visit the Privacy Place website: http://www.theprivacyplace.org/



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