Most health information web pages are tracked, Penn study finds


    Is that nagging cough just a remnant of a cold or an early sign of lung cancer? If you’ve looked for answers online, you’re not alone.

    But according to a new report, that browsing might be putting your privacy at risk.

    “The tracking is much more endemic than I even anticipated,” said Tim Libert, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and the author of the study.

    He wrote a computer program to search more than 80,000 health-related web pages for pieces of code that make details about web visitors available to advertisers and other outside companies. Nine times out of 10, he found, websites included these “third-party” requests.

    “People are so eager to be connected to high-quality information that they rush forward to grab it without necessarily thinking about the data trail that they leave behind,” said Susannah Fox, a health care and technology trend spotter and researcher with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who was not involved in the work.

    Tracking might not be surprising for commercial sites such as WebMD, but data was also leaking from nonprofit, government and educational sites.

    “It’s not malicious, they’re not doing it on purpose,” said Libert. “But it does have a big impact, so they need to look more closely.”

    Often, non-commercial pages will make use of free data analytics or social media tools that are the source of the leaks.

    Google, more than any other company, is on the receiving end, collecting details from 78 percent of web pages. Next in line is comScore, an advertiser, with 38 percent, and Facebook with 31 percent.

    More troubling to Libert are the 8 percent of sites sending data to brokers who make a profit selling the information as they also collect financial histories.

    “It’s pretty disturbing that a company that can tell the last medical bill you weren’t able to pay could also potentially find the first time you looked for your symptoms,” he said.

    It’s not yet clear how much is actually being done with this type of information, but Libert is concerned it could be used to identify individuals with certain medical conditions and lead to discrimination.

    One option for Internet users is to install a browser plug-in that will block some aspects of the tracking.

    “Unfortunately the reality of most people’s lives is that they’re going to stick with whatever is the default,” said Fox.

    Both she and Libert agreed a better long-term solution is for companies and lawmakers to come up with standards or guidelines to protect Internet users.

    “What I would like to see is kind of a triage system,” said Libert, “where when [companies] get information about users that’s something very sensitive, they would have a system that would delete it or partition it in some way.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal