Politico by Brett Norman –
July 9, 2013:
The National Security Agency is tracking your phone calls. And online snoops may be keeping tabs on your Internet health searches, too.
And that includes use of terms such as “depression” or “herpes.”
A research letter published Monday by JAMA Internal Medicine found that seven of 20 widely used health websites are passing on users’ searches to third parties.
Those sending the information along include widely used free commercial websites like Health.com and Drugs.com, as well as popular news sites like The New York Times and Men’s Health Magazine. Most government sites and others closely tied to professional medical groups — the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance — do not.
But the study, by Marco Huesch, a public policy researcher at the University of Southern California, suggests that it’s a relatively common practice, one that he says should be addressed legislatively to prevent data from being misused.
The public is turning to a proliferation of free health care sites for information about medical conditions. It can be a source of irritation to doctors who parry questions from patients who have come up with their own theories about what may be the matter and how to treat it.
All of the sites in the study included at least fine-print statements about data sharing as well as contractual commitments from third parties to protect the identity of individuals. But Huesch says safeguards are inadequate. And if searches for mental health conditions, for instance, are linked to individuals and provided to employers, it could lead to discrimination.
The “threats to privacy are real and insufficiently addressed in current legislation and regulations,” Huesch writes.
Most of the information is used to improve the user experience and to target advertisements to support a free business model, Huesch writes, but “[w]ere such risks to be realized, the ramifications could span embarrassment, discrimination in the labor market or the deliberate decision by marketers not to offer or advertise particular goods and services to an individual, based solely on the companies’ privately gathered knowledge.”
Huesch downloaded free privacy software as well as a commercial program that detects hidden traffic from a user’s computer on the websites of third parties and searched for the terms “depression,” “herpes” and “cancer.” The free privacy tools detected cookies or other “tracking elements” in 13 of 20 sites, and the commercial program found that seven actively sent search terms to third parties.
Huesch notes that traditional health privacy concerns have revolved around medical records but that much health-related information is generated in Internet searching.
“Until strong consumer privacy legislation is enacted, individuals should take care how much trust they place in their anonymity and the confidentiality of their information when online,” he writes.