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A new article in Communications of the ACM by Timothy Libert, a doctoral student in the Annenberg School for Communication, demonstrates that web sites – including government web sites such as CDC.gov and Healthcare.gov – pass personal health information to companies that are not subject to regulation or oversight.
- Libert, Tim. “Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web.” Communications of the ACM 58, no. 3 (February 23, 2015): 68–77. [free copy at arxiv] [subscriber only copy at ACM doi:10.1145/2658983].
Brian Merchant provides a non-technical summary and analysis of Libert’s paper:
- Looking Up Symptoms Online? These Companies Are Tracking You, by Brian Merchant, Motherboard (February 23, 2015)
Libert says that this health information may be inadvertently misused by some companies, sold by others, or even stolen by criminals. He identified more than eighty thousand unique health-related Web pages and monitored the HTTP requests initiated on the page to third parties by companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Experian, and Acxiom. Ninety-one percent of those pages make such third-party requests, putting user privacy at risk. Some 70% of those third-party requests transmit information on specific symptoms, treatments, and diseases to those companies.
Merchant explains: “[T]he CDC has installed Google Analytics to measure its traffic stats, and has, for some reason, included AddThis code which allows Facebook and Twitter sharing; … the CDC also sends a third party request to each of those companies. That request… makes explicit to those third party corporations in its HTTP referrer string [what you searched for]… From there, it becomes relatively easy for the companies receiving the requests, many of which are collecting other kinds of data (in cookies, say) about your browsing as well, to identify you and your illness. That URL, or URI, which very clearly contains the disease being searched for, is broadcast to Google, Twitter, and Facebook, along with your computer’s IP address and other identifying information.”
“Given that I found Experian tracking users on thousands of health-related web pages, it is entirely possible the company not only knows which individuals went bankrupt for medical reasons, but when they first went online to learn about their illness as well…”
Merchant also quotes Libert on alternative search engines:
“Even if you use an iPhone, DuckDuckGo, and Hotmail, the second you open your browser there is a huge chance Google gets your data.” That’s because Google is absorbing your information through a variety of hosted services and domain names, from Google Analytics, which measures site traffic, to DoubleClick, an advertising service, and YouTube, its video platform.
Wikipedia was one of the only sites that trafficked in health information that sent no third party requests to corporations.
I’ve got a google search alert set up for “CRS report” OR “Congressional Research Service” and thought I’d share the CRS reports in my most recent alert. If you’re not familiar with this service, it’s a handy way to keep track of issues or subjects. Go to http://www.google.com/alerts to set up alerts, or do a search on google news and scroll down to the bottom of the page to create an alert for your search.
Here’s the latest CRS reports in the news:
- Taiwanese air force faces plane shortage by 2020. Taipei Times. “The annual report by the Congressional Research Service, entitled Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990 — which Defense News has called “required reading inside Taiwan defense circles and among US defense officials working with the island’s military” — provides a detailed analysis of US arms sales to Taiwan over more than two decades.”
- The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress. CRS Report R41780. Posted on the FAS Secrecy News site.
- eNewsUSA: CRS Report On GHG Emissions & Canadian Oil Sands
- China’s Stranglehold on Rare Earths to Loosen as North American Production Facilities Come Online. Finance.yahoo.com. “According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report in April China currently produces 97 percent of the world’s rare earth oxides.” I found the 2011 CRS report posted on OpenCRS but the 2012 report has not been made public yet.*
- Fox Mangles Data To Claim “The Poor” Are Getting “Richer”. Media Matters. “The CRS report notes that “although the rank of the United States differs somewhat from one study to the next, as discussed below, the United States typically is found to be among the least mobile of the advanced economies.” [Congressional Research Service, 3/7/12]”
*Our readers may or may not know that the Library of Congress does NOT make CRS reports public, nor are they distributed to libraries in the Federal Depository Library Program. The only way to make a CRS report public is for member of Congress to release it or for a citizen to request it from her/his representative. Many in the library and govt transparency communities have been trying for years to persuade CRS to change their policy that views CRS reports as confidential queries with members of Congress and begin to officially release them to the public. OpenCRS and other sites like Steven Aftergood’s Secrecy News regularly post CRS reports, but this is done only because CRS refuses to release them to the public. Please contact your representative and ask them to push CRS to change their policy.