SAN FRANCISCO (02/03/2000) - Hypochondriacs love the Web, that great depository of scary diagnoses and obscure diseases. But there may be reason for them to fear the Web, too. According to a new report by the California HealthCare Foundation, when you use the Web to look up the symptoms of syphilis, others may be checking up on you.
As Reuters reported, "Internet health sites are collecting and sharing with other companies detailed personal information about visitors, often without their knowledge and despite promises to protect privacy, a study released on Tuesday said. Some companies were sharing e-mail addresses and other information when they promised they would not, the report said." According to Reuters, the culprits include Drkoop.com, WebMD.com, iVillage.com, Yahoo.com and OnHealth.com.
The Washington Post's John Schwartz explained how some of this information was being harvested. "DoubleClick sends information about which pages the visitor views back to the firm," he wrote. "But that seemingly innocuous Internet address contains a wealth of information - for instance, on the Drkoop.com site, the addresses of the pages contain keywords describing whether the surfer has been to a pageabout diabetes or other diseases."
The fear, of course, is that surreptitiously constructed medical profiles could fall into the hands of employers or insurance companies. Not surprisingly, privacy advocates were outraged. Jason Catlett, the professional privacy gadfly who founded Junkbusters, told the Times, "It's horrifying but not surprising that medical sites are doing as poor a job on privacy as used-car trading sites."
The study's authors were more forgiving. According to Clausing, they compared the online health industry to "an awkward adolescent who has yet to understand all the implications of his actions." Still, if sites are blabbing when users turn to them to find information that they're too scared or ashamed to look for anywhere else, growing pains seems a weak excuse.