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Your (Online) MD is Talking About You

Friday, June 12, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Nathan Swartzendruber
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Is the cough you have right now a touch of allergies or a summer cold? It's easy to toss a question like this into a Google search and end up at WebMD. Or Answers.com or About.com, all for-profit sites which have high rankings in Google search results.

Your search doesn't stop there, though, even if you find your answer. Those sites collect information about you to sell to advertisers or data brokers. That is, they send your search terms along with identifying information about your computer to a list of companies, reports a Vice.com article from February of this year.

That list often includes Google and Facebook, which are top online advertising companies, who also supply analytics and social-sharing tools. This may sound fairly innocuous when you're looking up cold symptoms, but when Target can use data to figure out if a customer is pregnant before she's told anyone, greater risks are easy to picture. Even the CDC's website uses Google and Facebook tracking tools.

To protect your privacy, there are steps you can take. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created Privacy Badger, an web browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that spots and can block trackers. Google (and Amazon and others) tracks your search history when you're logged in, so log out and use a public computer (like those in your library) which lots of other people also use.

And of course, we can help people find health information from better sources than WebMD.

  • Nathan Swartzendruber, SWON Technology Educator

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