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What You Don’t Know About Your Health Data will make You Physically Ill

Health information data sharing

With so many “trusted” websites like Google and Facebook being accused of selling information to the highest buyers, many people have become skeptical of the web in general. Even those Facebook quizzes have people on edge regarding their security. Many people warn that taking the popular quizzes on Facebook gives the company access to sensitive information including your name. profile, friends, etc. Is any information safe?

We all know that general information is taken and used by advertisers as well as websites to learn more about the traffic coming in. It’s also used to allow advertisers to market themselves to potential buyers. As we discussed in the Google article, your searches are sold and used against you. For most people, this is mostly just an annoyance. You’ll see ads for products you searched for a couple of weeks before they go away and are replaced by new ads. In other words, it’s just an inconvenience.However what you might be unaware of, is that your health information could also be out there for the masses and that companies are selling it to third parties. And yes, this can also impact your credit score scarily enough.

So while it may seem both convenient and practical to use your smartphone to keep up with your medication as well as Google illness symptoms, these apps and websites might be sharing your personal information.

The price of capitalism

data is one of the hottest currencies

It’s sad that the world we live in where data is one of the hottest currencies available. Personal information is worth its weight in gold and companies are just as eager to hand it out for a few bucks as others are to get their hands on it. Every click you make online is heavily monitored and sometimes your moves are even tracked offline.

This information is then sold at market to the highest bidder; without your express knowledge or permission. And for many, it’s impossible to opt out of the sharing aspect of the apps and websites. We’ve come to accept the fact that this is true of our basic search and app habits. If you have the Urban Outfitters app downloaded for example and frequently search for their clothing online, you’ll see a lot more Urban Outfitters ads and related companies pop up. These ads will appear on social media as well as frequented websites that have space for advertising. However, you would never expect your health information to be used against you in the same manner.

Unfortunately, just like with the Urban Outfitters app, your health apps and Google searches are sharing your most personal, valuable data. Sure, you can easily not search for your symptoms online, but for those who have their medical data stored in apps or even on their doctor’s medical site, it’s not always an option to get out of sharing that information. This means that the most sensitive and personal parts of your life are available for third parties to craft advertisements based on or to sell it to fourth party companies who have little to nothing to do with the health industry.

Conducting a study to expose these apps and websites

Apps and website fake profile

In a recent study conducted using fake profiles on medical websites as well as information searched for through websites like WebMD, researchers discovered that a lot of third parties were privy to this information. That’s right, the last time you checked WebMD and it told you that you were dying of brain cancer instead of recommending you take medicine for your migraine, this info was handed out to interested parties.

According to the research, even health apps were selling the private information. You’d expect websites with built in search engines would collect and share some data, but you wouldn’t expect it from your personal health app. At least, we wouldn’t. However these apps, which often hold the most sensitive information regarding users, are selling the information and sharing it just as frequently as Google and Facebook share their data.

The research was conducted by a research team composed of members from Canada, the United States, and Australia according to Gizmodo. The researchers were curious whether or not these medical apps were selling information or actually keeping it to themselves as promised. The research team downloaded 24 of the most popular health apps on Android and started the process.

For each individual app, the researchers put together four fake profiles. They then used the programs 14 times. When they logged in for the 15th time, they changed up the information they gave to the apps just slightly. They then tracked whether or not the network traffic had changed. This allowed them to see whether or not the apps shared the change in data and where they shared it too.

The results are depressing

Selling data to third party

The researchers discovered that a staggering 79 percent of these apps shared at least some of the collected data with third parties. This included popular apps like Drugs.com, Ada, Medscape, and more. Of course, some of the apps were using the data as a way of improving the functions of the app by maintaining the cloud where personal data is stored and dealing with errors, others were definitely using the information to allow other companies to create tailored advertisements based on that individual’s health profile.

In other words let’s say that you have anxiety. On your app, you store all of your information. The app is responsible for your medication (including what kind and how much you take), as well as managing your symptoms/concerns, doctor visits, etc. Because of your profile, third parties will begin marketing self-help books related to anxiety as well as other drugs, seminars, and just about anything else that will make a quick buck.

However, it doesn’t just stop there. According to the researchers, the third parties were bundling user data and sharing it with fourth party companies. Most of these companies were far removed from the health industry. And unfortunately many of these companies were credit-reporting agencies. In other words, your health could impact your credit score and actually lower it.

Just because your name might not be attached doesn’t mean it’s safe

Data is not safe

Many argue that this isn’t as big of a deal as people are making it. “Full names typically aren’t attached to these profiles, and if they are companies typically don’t include them when selling your data. Plus all they’re doing is collecting information you give to the app or using your search results. They’re data mining. Who cares? You still use Facebook, right and they’ve been collecting and selling your information for years.” That’s the basic sentiment that a lot of people have.

However, the researchers were quick to point out that even if the company is keeping to its word of total anonymity and de-identifying its parties, it’s easy for certain companies to figure out the user’s identity given enough data. “It’s easier than you realize to figure out who’s who even without their full name. Given specific profiles, ages, and information these companies can easily piece together who’s who and put a name to a profile so to speak,” the researchers fired back. “And regardless, do you really want that kind of sensitive information being leaked to companies for money?”

Not to mention, the more places your information travels and the more websites it’s available on, the easier and more likely it is for hackers to get ahold of your sensitive information.

There’s a 4th party with a vested interest in your info

Health data is not safe

While most of the data was shared in some level of capacity or another to third parties, the information was also handed out to a fourth party in many cases. The primary company that was privy to this data is probably the last one you’d want having ANY of your information: Equifax. The research team discovered that Equifax had an agreement with many of the apps’ third parties. This means that not only can your personal health information, something that should be between just you and your doctor, affect your ability to buy a home or care, but Equifax also had one of the largest hacks. Tons of data was stolen from their website and that’s still very, very fresh in everyone’s minds.

So while it’s bad enough that your health information, something you can’t control, is being used against you, it’s also at risk of being hacked and leaked to the world.

Isn’t this illegal?

Data sharing is illegal

You’d expect this kind of data sharing to be illegal or in the very least heavily frowned upon, but it’s not. It’s how businesses and companies have been operating on the web for a long, long time now. And according to the researchers, they don’t see it changing anytime soon. They were also quick to say that these findings really aren’t all that surprising. After all, since data is such a hot currency, it makes sense that personal stuff such as your health would sell like hot cakes so to speak.

You might also be thinking, “well, I didn’t agree to this so it has to be illegal right?” And once again, you’d be wrong. Disclosure wise, the apps do inform users that they share data with third parties. This is typically buried in a 40 page privacy policy that’s been cleverly designed so that people just skim over it before hitting “accept.” This legalizes their ability to share your private information. After all, you’ve consented.

As for those that actually do read all of the fine print, the agreement is often poorly worded or “snuck in”. Using clever lingo, you might be unaware that you’re agreeing to the company’s desire to sell your personal data. And even if you are slick enough to catch it, none of the apps will allow you to opt out of the data sharing. So if you want to use their app (and in many cases, it’s a necessity), then you’ll have to allow the company to use your data as they see fit. And yes you read that right, according to the researchers ALL of the apps prevent you from opting out of the data share.

How can I protect my health information?

Protect your health info

Unfortunately, this is one of those things where there’s no real solid answer. For starters users that take advantage of health programs online and apps need to be cautious with the ones they choose to use. And while it might seem impossible to protect your online data given the information in this article, it is possible.

Easier said than done of course, but heavily researching each individual app before putting even a drop of information into it is a start. Obviously they’re going to share your data regardless, but you can at least avoid those companies that are selling it for heinous reasons. Just like you accept the fact that Facebook is going to market advertisements to your profile, you’ll need to accept that your health app will do the same.

We also believe that there should be a heightened call that seeks to protect users from these predators. And informing the masses is the first and best way to begin. The more people that come to learn about the shady dealings of companies, the better they can prepare themselves. So please, share this article with your friends and family that might not be aware that their health data can have hard consequences on them.

Your thoughts?

We were shocked to learn just how far these apps were going to make a buck. We were even more shocked that NONE of them allowed you to opt out of having your information shared. We were always aware that they had to share some level of personal data in order to advertise to you, but we didn’t know that companies like Equifax had their hands in the pot. What do you think about the whole thing? Does it surprise you? Do you think you’ll be less willing to use these apps in the future?

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

Written by Vimal Lalani

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

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