A confidentiality policy is a set of rules regarding the distribution and maintenance of information and records. Schools, churches, hospitals, and businesses may all have confidentiality policies that employees must agree to follow and maintain. A confidentiality policy generally seeks to set clear guidelines as to the type of information that must be kept restricted, the chain of command for revealing private information, and information that may or must be revealed to authorities.
Some confidentiality policies are meant to protect customers or patients of a business. In an organization such as a hospital, a patient's personal data and information can usually only be viewed by those directly involved with the case. Failure to maintain standards of confidentiality, such as by leaving patient files scattered in a public area, can lead to lawsuits. Additionally, willfully exposing a patient's condition, statements, or records to those not affiliated with the case can also be grounds for employee dismissal or civil procedures. In 2008, for instance, several workers at the UCLA Medical Center were dismissed after sharing information about famous patients.
In a business, however, a confidentiality policy may also focus on what internal information must be withheld from the public, such as marketing strategies, research and development, and internal memos. Breach of these policies can lead to suspension, dismissal, and sometimes legal proceedings. Recently, a new type of legislation called a whistleblower law has been developed to protect employees who violate a confidentiality policy and alert authorities because of illegal practices within the company. Whistleblower laws aim to prevent retaliation, such as termination of employment, against people who are trying to eliminate illegal business practices.
Confidentiality policies often include sections on what information must be reported to the police or other authorities. Some professionals, such as therapists, are legally required to violate patient confidentiality when given information about a crime. Teachers, too, are often forced to violate confidences if they receive any evidence or information about child abuse or drug crimes.
In some cases, such as matters of national security or the violation of a regional or federal law, a court can order a person or witness to violate a confidentiality policy. If the person refuses, he or she may be charged with contempt of court and sentenced to prison or fines. In 2005, two American journalists were charged with contempt of court for refusing to reveal their source, a government official who was believed to have illegally revealed the identity of former Central Intelligence Agency operative. This controversial decision opened a new chapter in an age-old debate: whether journalists will be unable to discover and accurately report news if they are cannot be trusted to maintain confidentiality.