The danger to online health seekers

inter-1POST SUMMARY: According to the Pew Internet Project, 72 percent of US internet users look up health-related information online. But an astonishing number of the pages we visit to learn about private health concerns—confidentially, we assume—are tracking our queries, sending the sensitive data to third party corporations, even shipping the information directly to the same brokers who monitor our credit scores. It’s happening for profit, for an “improved user experience,” and because developers have flocked to “free” plugins and tools provided by data-vacuuming companies.

In April 2014, Tim Libert, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, custom-built software called webXray to analyze the top 50 search results for nearly 2,000 common diseases (over 80,000 pages total). He found the results startling: a full 91 percent of the pages made what are known as third-party requests to outside companies. That means when you search for “cold sores,” for instance, and click the highly ranked “Cold Sores Topic Overview WebMD” link, the website is passing your request for information about the disease along to one or more (and often many, many more) other corporations.

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According to Libert’s research, which is published in the Communications of the ACM, about 70 percent of the time, the data transmitted “contained information exposing specific conditions, treatments, and diseases.” That, he says, is “potentially putting user privacy at risk.” And it means you’ll probably want to think twice before looking up medical information on the internet.

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This puts users are risk for two significant reasons: first, people’s health interests may be publicly identified along with their names. This could happen because criminals get a hold of the information, it is accidentally leaked, or data brokers collect and sell the information. Second, many online marketers use algorithmic tools which automatically cluster people into groups with names like “target” and “waste.” Predictably, those in the “target” category are extended favorable discounts at retailers and advance notice of sales. Given that 62 percent of bankruptcies are the result of medical expenses, it is possible anyone visiting medical websites may be grouped into the “waste” category and denied favorable offers.

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Personal health information — historically protected by the Hippocratic Oath — has suddenly become the property of private corporations who may sell it to the highest bidder or accidentally misuse it to discriminate against the ill,” Libert said. “As health information seeking has moved online, the privacy of a doctor’s office has been traded in for the silent intrusion of behavioral tracking.”

Online privacy has for some time been a concern. Studies conducted by Annenberg dating back to 1999 indicate wariness among Americans about how their personal information may be used. And slightly more than one in every three Americans even knows that private third-parties can track their visits to health-related websites.