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