Skip to Content
Tech policy

Health websites are sharing sensitive medical data with Google, Facebook, and Amazon

November 13, 2019
Laptop
LaptopNordWood Themes | Unsplash

The news: Popular health websites are sharing private, personal medical data with big tech companies, according to an investigation by the Financial Times. The data, including medical diagnoses, symptoms, prescriptions, and menstrual and fertility information, are being sold to companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Oracle and smaller data brokers and advertising technology firms, like Scorecard and OpenX.

The investigation: The FT analyzed 100 health websites, including WebMD, Healthline, health insurance group Bupa, and parenting site Babycentre, and found that 79% of them dropped cookies on visitors, allowing them to be tracked by third-party companies around the internet. This was done without consent, making the practice illegal under European Union regulations. By far the most common destination for the data was Google’s advertising arm DoubleClick, which showed up in 78% of the sites the FT tested.

Responses: The FT piece contains a list of all the comments from the many companies involved. Google, for example, said that it has “strict policies preventing advertisers from using such data to target ads.” Facebook said it was conducting an investigation and would “take action” against websites “in violation of our terms.” And Amazon said: “We do not use the information from publisher websites to inform advertising audience segments.”

A window into a broken industry: This sort of rampant rule -breaking has been a dirty secret in the advertising technology industry, which is worth $200 billion globally, ever since EU countries adopted the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018. A recent inquiry by the UK’s data regulator found that the sector is rife with illegal practices, as in this case where privacy policies did not adequately outline which data would be shared with third parties or what it would be used for. The onus is now on EU and UK authorities to act to put an end to them.

Sign up here to our daily newsletter The Download to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech.

Deep Dive

Tech policy

The US Navy wants swarms of thousands of small drones

Budget documents reveal plans for the Super Swarm project, a way to overwhelm defenses with vast numbers of drones attacking simultaneously.

Inside effective altruism, where the far future counts a lot more than the present

The giving philosophy, which has adopted a focus on the long term, is a conservative project, consolidating decision-making among a small set of technocrats.

A wrongfully terminated Chinese-American scientist was just awarded nearly $2 million in damages

"The settlement makes clear that when the government discriminates, it’s going to be held accountable," said Sherry Chen's lawyer.

The Chinese surveillance state proves that the idea of privacy is more “malleable” than you’d expect

The authors of "Surveillance State" discuss what the West misunderstands about Chinese state control and whether the invasive trajectory of surveillance tech can still be reversed.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.