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Consumer Profiling 101: What can companies learn from your online searches for drug and medical info

*Googles “weird lump on knee”* Everybody does it. No matter what sort of symptom you wake up with in the morning––be it a runny nose, a strange pain in your stomach, or a weird growth on your elbow––many opt for a short google search before actually visiting a doctor. So what does this have to do with online privacy?

Personal medical information is an inherently private matter protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and strict rules of procedure to keep medical records secure. In this day and age, medical records are not only in hard copies, but also online for quick and easy access for an efficient healthcare system. But did you know that these are not your only medical files? You are contributing to your own circumstantial healthcare file with each online search for medical and drug information.

If you haven’t heard about targeted advertising, I will fill you in. Targeted advertising on the Internet is based on variables like demographics, psychographics, or other traits that are appealing to the sell of a product. Have you ever seen those ads on Facebook that promote products or services that you are actually really into, but you didn’t know how they knew that?

Much of what you do on the web under your IP address, including sites that you visit and searches you make, are anonymously monitored. What you click on, how long you spend on a site, and other “online behavior” comprise a profile that determines what products or services should be marketed to you.

Many may not mind it when it comes to trivial things like travel deals (one of the more popular Internet searches)––who wouldn’t want to know about that all-inclusive trip to the Bahamas for a killer price? But what about when it comes to something as private as your health? A Google search that leads to a host of medical sites could lead to a company capitalizing on your perhaps serious and mentally debilitating condition. This Fast Company article outlines some of the most unfortunate cases, one of the largest being MEDbase200, who sold lists of rape and domestic abuse victims, alcoholics, and many other categories of illness or personal circumstance to third-party companies. These companies were looking to advertise the common medications one might have on the nightstand as a result of their condition. Feeling violated yet?

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has combated this privacy infringement with a release of Guidelines on Privacy and Online Behavioral Advertising; however, cases are still emerging where sensitive information has been leaked to third parties or data brokers. Until legislation and policy plays catch-up on this privacy infringement, check out this PrivacyShell article on browsing privacy software to protect yourself and your health information. Or when in doubt, ditch the self-appointed medical degree you are using to diagnose yourself to satisfy your late night hypochondria, and make an appointment with your doctor instead.

About Krystina Lau

Krystina is a Legal Studies and Sociology graduate with a passion for advocacy in international contexts.

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