Summary: What happens when you make a health-related query on the Internet? Well, your query gets stored and sold. You knew that, of course, but it’s chilling to read this piece by Brian Merchant on Motherboard.
“It’s 2015—when we feel sick, fear disease, or have questions about our health, we turn first to the internet. According to the Pew Internet Project, 72 percent of US internet users look up health-related information online. But an astonishing number of the pages we visit to learn about private health concerns—confidentially, we assume—are tracking our queries, sending the sensitive data to third party corporations, even shipping the information directly to the same brokers who monitor our credit scores. It’s happening for profit, for an ‘improved user experience,’ and because developers have flocked to ‘free’ plugins and tools provided by data-vacuuming companies.
“In April 2014, Tim Libert, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, custom-built software called webXray to analyze the top 50 search results for nearly 2,000 common diseases (over 80,000 pages total). He found the results startling: a full 91 percent of the pages made what are known as third-party requests to outside companies. That means when you search for ‘cold sores,’ for instance, and click the highly ranked ‘Cold Sores Topic Overview WebMD’ link, the website is passing your request for information about the disease along to one or more (and often many, many more) other corporations.” Brian Merchant, via Looking Up Symptoms Online? These Companies Are Tracking You,” Motherboard.
Jeanne Pinder is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded ClearHealthCosts.
She was previously a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University School of Journalism. ClearHealthCosts has won grants from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York; the International Women’s Media Foundation; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with KQED public radio in San Francisco and KPCC in Los Angeles; the Lenfest Foundation in Philadelphia for a partnership with The Philadelphia Inquirer; and the New York State Health Foundation for a partnership with WNYC public radio/Gothamist in New York; and other honors.
Her TED talk about fixing health costs has surpassed 2 million views.