Is Profiling Users Who Are Searching for Medical Info Always Bad?


If you were searching the Internet for information on heart disease or depression, would you find it helpful to see an ad for medication or resources related to that medical problem, or would you see that as an invasion of privacy? That’s the question at the core of a formal privacy complaint launched by several advocacy groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy and the World Privacy Forum. They are asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate dozens of websites and services — including Google (s goog) and WebMD — which they say are “profiling” users based on their web-surfing behavior in order to show them related advertising.

The groups make a number of allegations in the complaint, including that these sites engage in what they call “disease-condition targeting,” where:

Consumers or patients who express a particular health concern or interest are digitally profiled, tracked, and served ads and content based on the collection and analysis of such information. Among the many sensitive categories used in condition targeting are depression, COPD, diabetes, and asthma.

In other words, these sites look at the search terms that brought users to the page, as well as any searches within the site, comments that might be posted, links that are clicked on, etc. — and then they deliver ads and content (my emphasis) based on that information. Search for heart disease and you might get ads and other content related to heart disease. But is this intrusive, or is it actually helpful? I know that when I have been searching for medical information, seeing related content — even if it is clearly advertising-oriented — has often been useful as I try to get informed about a specific problem.

The privacy groups involved in the complaint seem concerned about advertising specific medications to consumers who are searching for information, along with “social media monitoring” and “viral and word-of-mouth buzz marketing” aimed at specific medications. They describe how sites such as QualityHealth promote their services to pharmaceutical companies by saying they can reach potential patients before they make a trip to the doctor, and theoretically influence them in terms of what medication to ask for.

Here again we have the question of utility vs. privacy. If I am looking for information about an illness, isn’t it useful to find out what medications might be helpful in treating that problem? Just because I ask for it doesn’t mean my doctor is going to prescribe it. The groups say they are also concerned about insurance companies getting their hands on the profiling data collected about web-surfers, and using this to make decisions about their coverage. That seems more like something we should be worried about — not whether I get ads for Gaviscon when I search for information on indigestion.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Alan Cleaver



Privacy is slippery. I guess if it’s clear that what you’re looking at is an advertisement and not actual medical advice, and that it can’t be tracked back to you individually, then it’s no worse than other forms of targeted online ads. But that last point about insurers trying to make decisions based on web searches is really scary.

Anon Too

What’s the downside to targeted ads based on a visitor’s profile? What’s the biggest risk/fear for a publisher selling a targeted ad? It’s not like you do a search for some disease and the publisher turns around and announces to your entire social network that you have that illness.

Vanessa Williams

Targeting ads to you based on your search terms is done by everyone, so I can’t see that as bad, per se. If you watch a US cable television station, every second ad (sometimes more) is for drugs. You’re soaking in it.

However, increasingly people are associating real human beings with ad targeting information. This means someone may know what medication or conditions you as a person are searching for. Information like this is a land mine waiting to blow your leg off.

I don’t really see how you could allow everyone and their brother to track and target you, but disallow such tracking and targeting if it has to do with a “sensitive” topic, like health. I mean, it would be really nice if you could, but it hardly seems practical.

Mathew Ingram

I agree, Vanessa — it’s when the information gets tied to you as a person that it becomes a concern. I think that’s why the Facebook user IDs were such an issue, because places like Rapleaf were connecting those IDs to people’s names, locations, etc.


Yes, it’s always bad, and ought to be made completely illegal. The only explanation for you publishing this nonsense is that some industry group is offering you something in return. What a bunch of pernicious BS.

Mathew Ingram

I assure you, no one has offered us anything — industry group or otherwise. It is an honest question on my part. I don’t see why targeting ads to me based on my search keywords or browsing history is such a bad thing. Can you explain why you think it is?

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