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Your Internet Medical Search Isn't Private: Study

Companies track and sell the information, researcher says

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 8 (HealthDay News) -- Searching the Internet for medical information may leave behind a lucrative trail for profit-makers, a new study says.

When patients go online to look up a specific condition, the websites often sell that search information to companies that target ads to individual users. Or maybe they'll use the secretly obtained knowledge for something more sinister, the study contended.

"We should be a little worried," said study author Dr. Marco Huesch, an assistant professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

"The Internet has allowed us to access lots of free content, but as the saying goes, 'If you're not a paying customer for a website, then you're the product,' " Huesch said.

The only safe free medical sites appear to be government-sponsored, according to a research letter published July 8 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The third parties doing this tracking are usually companies that sell data to advertisers, marketers and the consumer goods-and-services industry.

"They are not insurance companies or drug companies, but clearly their customers and clients would be," Huesch said.

It's possible they aggregate medical-site users with dozens, hundreds or thousands of other people with similar interests and demographics, instead of keeping track of individuals, "but that's up to them," he added.

Until privacy legislation is strengthened, patients and consumers need to be careful about potential loss of anonymity and breaches of confidentiality while online, Huesch said.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said this study is a reminder that with great new power comes great exposure.

"The Internet is a window that works both ways," Katz said. "We can look out at the world through it, but the world is looking back. Sites devoted to health information are no exception."

This is not, however, a reason to avoid health sites, which can be enormously useful and empowering, he said.

Huesch used readily available software last December and January to detect whether search information was being passed from 20 popular health-related websites to third parties.

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