Three and a half years ago, I was looking into the idea of doing research on people's desire for privacy. I kind of gave up, though others have not, and perhaps I'll go back in that direction some day. Today's post is triggered by recent news from my school that a student has a strain of meningitis, which information the school may be required to make public, though of course other regulations require that they not announce which student. This seems like a useful example in which to lay out some spare thoughts I've had over the years.
The essential point is that there would be some public health justification for releasing the name of the building in which the student lives, the classes the student attends, possibly even student organizations in which the student has been active. If you release all of those, it seems likely that the student would be uniquely identified. Privacy is, at first order, less of a concern if you release any single one of those pieces of information; what I mostly want to note here is that, however you might try to place value on the student's privacy, one of the primary costs of releasing one of those pieces of information is that you thereby make it more expensive to release one of the others (and, similarly, more costly if one of them comes out by accident). While there is perhaps some extent to which different information can be released to different people, insofar as the information is likely to spread, it seems likely that their decision not to release any of those extra bits of identifying information is probably the right cost-benefit decision, regardless of what legal liability rules HIPPA might impose as well.