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Mainstream health websites share user searches with third-party marketing companies

Saturday, July 13, 2013 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: health websites, privacy, tracking code

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(NaturalNews) If you use mainstream health websites to search for information about personal health conditions from which you suffer or treatments in which you are interested, your private information could be getting peddled off to third party marketing companies without your consent, according to a new study. As many as 35 percent of the most popular health websites analyzed, it turns out, are actively selling users' specific search terms with outside tracking and marketing companies, which is a serious public privacy offense.

For their research, Dr. Marco Huesch from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles and his colleagues downloaded free privacy tools and purchased special interception software that they used to identify any hidden traffic taking place between 20 popular health websites and various third party companies. Specifically, the software was able to uncover how these websites secretly handle critical search query data provided by their users.

After matching popular search terms like "depression," "herpes," and "cancer" on the 20 sites, the researchers learned that government-run websites like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally do not share user search information. Most health websites directed towards doctors do not indiscriminately share this private information, either. But a number of other popular health sites do share this information, according to the findings.

"Most of the time this may be harmless," says Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a researcher from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, about the discovery. "You may be getting ads that are customized or tailored to you and you can just ignore them. (But) given that a lot of people are unaware of how their data are being tracked ... if these data are leaked, there are some serious consequences."

Men's Health, New York Times among sites exploiting your private search data

Published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the study revealed that both Men's Health and Health.com are among the culprits sharing private search query data with third party companies. Other offenders include Drugs.com, The New York Times Health, Fox News: Health, and MedicalNewsDaily/Mdlinx.

"While many of the third parties collect consumer information to target advertising, such as the 'DoubleClick' entity, nearly 300 other such identified entities track consumers in a sneakier and perhaps more nefarious manner, delivering advertising related more directly to the user's known or inferred interests, demographics, and past online behaviors -- making use on later occasions of, say, a user's search for 'herpes' or 'depression,'" wrote Dr. Huesch.

In total, 13 of the 20 websites analyzed were found to actively track and share private search query data with third parties, while the other 7 were found to share user information in some other manner. This means that every single health website analyzed is actively sharing user information in some way, shape, or form with third party companies, which may come as a surprise to the average user.

"These things aren't done for free," adds Dr. Heusch, as quoted by Reuters Health. "The people that invest in this third party data are sophisticated technology companies. At the end of the day, these tools are being used in ways that are pretty unsavory and creepy."

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