Tracking your search information is not just the business of the NSA and major technology companies. Medical information websites collect search queries and leak information to third parties too.
Of 20 free-to-use health sites, all of them had at least one “third-party element,” reports USC professor Dr. Marco Huesch. Some sites had at least six or seven.
Five sites that included a tracking function by third parties also included a social media “share” button that followed a user’s search even if the user did not click the button.
“Many users assume their online search inquiries are anonymous, but code on the website, such as social-media plug-ins, and dropped on the user’s computer, such as cookies, can divulge this data to third parties,” MedPage Today reported.
Among five of the 13 sites with tracking elements, social media-related tracking elements were embedded that shared a user’s data with a social media site whether or not the user was logged into a given social media site and regardless of whether the user chose to interact with the social media feature (such as by “liking” or “sharing” a page).
Through a data interception tool, search queries were leaked to third-party tracking elements on seven of the sites, which did not include government or physician-oriented sites.
[Huesch] concluded that although the information gathered through third-party affiliates “enhances the online user’s experience and allows targeted advertisements, which support a free business model,” many of these data-mining methods can compromise a user’s privacy and “are insufficiently addressed in current legislation and regulations.”
“Were such risks to be realized, the ramifications could span embarrassment, discrimination in the labor market, or the deliberate decision by marketers not to offer or advertise particular goods and services to an individual,” he added.
The results also suggested that government- and professional society-related websites may be safer search beacons than those of commercial or mass-media sites.