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Study: Health advice websites may track, share searches with third parties

by Take Two®

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A doctor speaks to a patient as a sphygmomanometer, or blood pressure meter, lies on his desk on September 5, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry/Getty Images

People think nothing of running to the Internet to investigate aches and pains, but what they may not know is that health websites can track their searches and share them with third parties. 

Concerns about medical privacy have led the Illinois Attorney General to open an inquiry into the data-mining practices of health sites like WebMD and health.com. With more is Marco Huesch, who teaches health care policy at the University of Southern California and did a study about privacy on these health sites, using himself as the test subject.

Between December 2012 and January 2013, Huesch used freely available privacy tools to detect traffic to third party sites while he browsed 20 free medical advice websites.  Huesch found that every single site had at least one third-party element, the average being six or seven. Thirteen of the websites had one or more tracking elements, but no tracking elements were found on doctor-oriented sites connected to professional groups. 

"Failure to address these concerns may diminish trust in health-related websites and reduce the willingness of some people to access health-related information online," the study concludes.

Huesch also found that searches were leaked to third-party tracking groups by seven of the 20 websites. Interestingly, search terms were not leaked when done on U.S. government sites or four of the five physician-oriented sites, according to the study results.

Huesch said you don't have to quit your health sites.  Web surfers can protect their privacy through freely available tools such as DoNotTrackMe and Ghostery.



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