In classified environments, information is only available on a need-to-know basis. If you have no official business pertaining to a file, then you don’t need to know. Healthcare professionals should consider HIPAA to be a similar environment.

Last year, Congress passed HITECH, which tightened restrictions on healthcare privacy and increased penalties for transgressions. Unauthorized access to patient records can lead to jail-time. A surgeon working as a researcher at UCLA was sentenced to jail under the HIPAA. What happened? Here’s the rest of the story:

Huping Zhou, a cardiothoracic surgeon, was working at the UCLA School of Medicine as a researcher. His employment was terminated, but UCLA’s IT department didn’t block his access to electronic medical records at the same moment; it took the university some time to process retraction of the doctor’s authorization to the database. In that interrum, Dr. Zhou accessed and read his immediate supervisor’s medical records, as well as those of former co-workers. Then, over the next few weeks, his curiosity led him to remotely access of other medical records he was unauthorized to see, including those of celebrity patients.

Authorities acknowledge that Zhou didn’t try to sell the information. Zhou’s attorney, Edward Robinson, says the doctor, a Chinese immigrant, didn’t know it was a federal crime. Last January, Zhou pled guilty to four misdemeanor counts of violating the HIPAA privacy rule. He was sentenced to four months in jail.

File snooping out of curiosity is not considered authorized access. There is no Need To Know. Accessing records of a neighbor, child’s teacher, or friends without authorization can land a doctor and his practice in hot water. HIPAA isn’t just a good idea or ethic. HIPAA is being actively enforced, and the powers that be are paying attention to who accesses what files.

Another practical reminder: Before responding to a rant about your practice on a doctor rating site, remember that HIPAA was not designed to encourage robust debate in the marketplace of ideas.