Up for Sale: Your Private Health Details

Up for Sale: Your Private Health Details

Think your Prozac prescription is a private matter between you and your doctor? Think again.

Data brokers are increasingly using information about the websites you visit, the apps you download and the products you purchase to create lists of consumers with certain medical issues and sell them to marketers, CNNMoney reports.


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Federal law prohibits insurance companies from denying someone coverage based on this kind of data. But it’s often unclear exactly where this information travels and how it’s used.

According to a May 2014 Federal Trade Commission report, someone who researches products related to diabetes might wind up on a “Diabetes Interest” list, which insurance companies could use to classify a consumer as higher risk.

CNNMoney points out two specific data brokers that create lists of consumers at high risk for specific conditions. Paramount Lists sells a list of “depression sufferers,” or people who have reported taking drugs such as Zoloft or Prozac. Great Lakes Management keeps track of households where people suffering from Alzheimer’s live.

Some consumers might believe this medical information is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But, as CNNMoney reports, HIPAA pertains exclusively to “covered entities” such as your doctor and health plan, so data brokers can still collect it and sell it to marketers.

In its May report, the Federal Trade Commission proposes greater transparency when it comes to data broker industry practices. Specifically, these data brokers should have to get “express consent” from consumers before they collect and share their health information.

This isn’t the first time regulators have raised concerns about privacy standards around personal health information. Last year, a Privacy Rights Clearinghouse study found most health apps submit users’ personal information to marketers without letting them know.

PRC recommends users always assume the information they provide to an app will be sent to advertisers, and exercise their own judgment about what they choose to share.


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