Better watch what you Google

By Denis Storey


I know I should still be talking about Obama backing down from his own mandate (what’s his legacy again?). Or Republicans seizing this opening to finish gutting PPACA (which should be easy now). Or even maybe even asking who’s running IT for Health and Human Services since the third delay this month sprung out of a computer glitch (where’s NSA when you need them?).

But a story from Fast Company stopped me dead in my tracks. And as you’ll soon see, there’s no way I could resist.

In short: A new study from a University of Southern California-Los Angeles and Duke business school researcher shows some leading health sites are leaking your medical search terms to those third-party trackers that most Internet commerce is built on.

According to the Fast Company report, “Using interception software, [researcher Marco] Huesch looked at 20 leading health sites and found that seven of them leaked search terms to third-party trackers, including [WebMD and Medline Plus]. Five also had social media tracking plug-ins. And there’s little doubt that ‘herpes’ is a popular search term.”

Oops. So, I guess the quick moral to this story is that you might wanna think twice before hitting up WebMD about those suspicious bumps in your nether regions. Or that ... well, you get the idea.

I didn’t need to tell any of you about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the nightmare this presents here. And as startling as this sounds -- especially for those chronic self-diagnosers among us -- this shouldn’t surprise any of us in this privacy-challenged new information age we’re in.

We’re assured that medical data is kept vague enough by these trackers to toe the line on HIPAA but I don’t think I sound too paranoid when Edward Snowden’s still in the news.

This is scary stuff. I know, I know, technology and unprecedented access to data can do wonders for health care -- and health insurance -- in this country. But much like the national security debate, I guess it all comes down to how much are we willing to give up in exchange for what we may (or may not) get in return?

We all want to be safe from another terrorist attack, to go back to a pre-9/11 world. But we complain about aggressive TSA searches, waterboarding and questionable surveillance.

We want to live how we please and all our ills kept confidential. But we also want to live forever and immediate (and affordable) health care when things go wrong.

I know, as Americans, we want it both ways, but I’m here pound on the table and scream at the walls that we just can’t have it both ways.

Screw it. I’m going to get a beer and put off that physical my doctor’s office keeps calling me about. And you damn well better believe I reserve the right to complain about this nagging pain in my chest.

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