Why Looking Up Health Info Online Could Be Bad for Your Privacy

If you turn to the Internet when you're curious about health-related issues, there's a good chance your online searches are being watched by others.

New research at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication reveals that there's a significant risk to your privacy whenever you visit a health-related web page. An analysis showed that 90 percent of visits to more than 80,000 health-related web pages resulted in personal health information being leaked to third parties, including online advertisers and data brokers.

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According to University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Tim Libert's research, third parties collect data from for-profit sites like and even government sites like the Centers for Disease Control, which warns visitors that third-party content on their pages includes marketing or analytics products like MotionPoint and Omniture, used to generate targeted advertising. Even companies you might not expect, like Experian, were among those collecting health-related info in Libert's study. Another company named MedBase 200 allegedly generated and sold marketing lists of rape victims and domestic abuse victims, along with patients with hundreds of illnesses.

This practice can be viewed as an annoyance for users who begin seeing targeted advertisements based on their illnesses or that of a family member on web pages they visit. It can also out your illness to others, if, say, someone else uses your personal computer and picks up on a pattern about the products being pushed.

In addition, the sites you visit could potentially put you at risk of being discriminated against by potential employers, retailers or anybody else willing to shell out enough money to buy the information collected by data brokers. Online marketers use algorithmic tools that automatically cluster people into groups with names like “target" and “waste." Those in the “target" category, for example, might be extended favorable discounts at retailers, while those that might spend a lot of time visiting health pages related to a serious illness could be denied favorable offers — especially considering that 62 percent of bankruptcies are the result of medical expenses.

Furthermore, this industry practice poses an enormous risk when it comes to data breaches and identity theft. If criminals get a hold of personal health information, or if your information is accidentally leaked or sold by a data broker to an unworthy customer, health information could be publicly identified along with individuals' names, Libert warns.

These findings also shine light on a loophole: While health privacy is protected by the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the law isn't meant to oversee business practices by third-party commercial entities or data brokers.

To help prevent marketers from spying on your health-related searches, Libert recommends using Ghostery or Adblock Plus.

If you'd like more privacy when it comes to your life online, LifeLock offers a free new service, LifeLock Privacy Monitor™ Beta, which empowers consumers to take back some control over their personal information.

LifeLock Privacy Monitor™ Beta  allows people to find and remove or suppress their personally identifiable information, such as name, address, age and known relatives, from selected common people-search websites and data aggregators. Removing personal information from these databases can help consumers regain some privacy and make it harder for others to access this personal information or sell it for marketing purposes.

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