Health-information sites are among the most popular on the Internet worldwide but, when it comes to privacy, they’re also among the most vulnerable to the silent intrusion of data tracking.
Analyzing 80,000 Web pages at health-related sites, Timothy Libert, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, found that 91 percent of them siphoned information about an individual’s site visit and shared it with third parties. The passed-along data included details such as symptoms, treatments and diseases investigated, potentially providing third parties with the ability to create dossiers about the user’s health conditions.
Be it WebMD.com or CDC.gov, commercial, governmental, nonprofit (.org) and educational (.edu) webpages are all wide open to tracking. Who’s doing it?
“The simple answer,” Libert said, “is that a variety of advertising companies have developed a massive data collection infrastructure that is designed to avoid detection, as well as ignore, counteract or evade user attempts at limiting collection.”
The majority of this captured data is funneled to the usual suspects implicated in Internet monitoring. Google leads the way, scooping information from 78 percent of all health-related pages. ComScore, the leading digital analytics firm, and Facebook take up positions two and three. A host of other advertising firms and data brokers fill out the roster. Ultimately, this information is sold to financial institutions, employers, marketers – and anyone who will pay for it.
Data collectors claim the information they gather is anonymous but, as Libert points out, with the breadth of information being collected, “it would be fairly trivial for the company to match real identities to anonymous web-browsing data.” He believes, as do we, that health information needs to be treated with special care and exempted from monetization.
Unfortunately, there are no laws to prevent the leaking of sensitive health information — and the idea of industry self-regulation continues to be little more than wishful thinking.
It is likely that nothing but concerted protests from users of the Internet will have any effect.