Patients who search on free health-related websites for information related to a medical condition may have the health information they provide leaked to third party tracking entities through code on those websites, according to a research letter by Marco D. Huesch, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
The research letter was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine entitled “Privacy Threats When Seeking Online Health Information” and looked at how 20 health-related websites track visitors, ranging from the sites of the National Institutes of Health to the health news section of The New York Times online. Thirteen of the sites had at least one potentially worrisome tracker, according to the analysis performed by Dr. Huesch.
He also found evidence that health search terms he tried — herpes, cancer and depression — were shared by seven sites with outside companies. According to the paper:
“A patient who searches on a “free” health-related website for information related to “herpes” should be able to assume that the inquiry is anonymous. If not anonymous, the information knowingly or unknowingly disclosed by the patient should not be divulged to others.
Unfortunately, neither assumption may be true. Anonymity is threatened by the visible Internet address of the patient’s computer or the often unique configuration of the patient’s web browser. Confidentiality is threatened by the leakage of information to third parties through code on websites (eg, iframes, conversion pixels, social media plug-ins) or implanted on patients’ computers (eg, cookies, beacons).”
Dr. Huesch says that he was inspired to investigate this area by the archive of coverage on the topic by The Wall Street Journal on how the technology and market for your online information work. The most recent piece in this series is on Facebook privacy settings and some of the risks associated with “Graph Search.” This entire series is very good and worth the read.