Why Privacy is Important When Searching for Health & Medical Related Info Online

“What are the common side effects of antibiotics?”

“What are the symptoms of diabetes?”

“Therapists near me”

You’ve likely done searches like these – related to health symptoms, side-effects, healthcare, and so on – perhaps even in the past few days. It’s very common to seek answers to health-related questions online! And many of the questions consumers ask their search engines are deeply personal and things they’d normally only share with professionals.

But did you know that non-private search engines are selling your search information? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. The general public largely isn’t aware that every moment they’re online, their behavior is being tracked and collected to create a personalized “profile” which is then sold to companies who want to use that data for targeted advertising and other not-so-altruistic purposes.

This data harvest includes personal health-related information. Like all of your online searches, those about medical treatment or health are being watched and the data collected and stored. In fact, an increasing number of companies are practicing search engine data health profiling and targeting. The bottom line is your search history is being used to target youand you didn’t consent to it.

As a consumer, it feels as if someone is spying on you and using what they find against you. Plus, the level of secrecy around these practices makes it difficult for the average consumer to understand and take action. But besides feeling a little “off”, why should it matter to you?

Targeted ads

The most common way that companies use your purchased personal data is to create targeted ads to sell you a product or service. You know – those ads that appear on your Facebook feed sometimes mere minutes after an initial search? According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, online advertisers can track people with, for example, bipolar disorder, overactive bladder, or anxiety, and produce ads related to those conditions targeted at specific people.” Cross-device tracking is also common, resulting in targeted ads on your smartphone or tablet using data collected on your desktop or laptop, which, in addition to being annoying, allows for far more detailed profiles, as data about you is collected from every device you use.

Using your search and browsing history, companies can identify your susceptibility to becoming (or already being) concerned about a certain ailment or medical prescription. They can target you with ads about anything, from blood pressure medication, to dieting fads or products, to plastic surgery.

The effects of health-related ads

According to Consumer Reports, it’s critical that consumers protect themselves from being targeted with medical scams and threats, and other manipulative content. Advertisers see the value of targeting key audiences via search – we’ve known this for a long time. Sometimes their purpose is educational, but what happens when it’s not that altruistic? You might doubt the impact of health-related ads, but they have the potential to negatively impact your health in a few different ways.

First, these ads may not be fact-based or completely trustworthy, and there aren’t currently effective processes (or legislation) to prevent them from appearing online. This can result in consumers believing and following inaccurate medical information, which can, of course, have extremely harmful outcomes.

Additionally, while some people benefit from the endless amount of medical information on the Internet, others don’t. Becoming a hypochondriac – a condition in which a person is excessively and unduly worried about having a serious illness – is far easier than it used to be. In fact, even those who don’t have this illness anxiety disorder diagnosis may find themselves experiencing some of the associated fears. Frequently seeing related ads days after a search can negatively impact the mental wellbeing of those who are already concerned they may have an illness. In fact, the term Cyberchondria was coined to describe the condition that drives people to repeatedly query their symptoms on online search engines.

According to the Scientific American, “Nearly one in three people among the millions who seek health information online report feeling more anxious afterwards.” But this anxiousness can last much longer because of targeted ads. Ads follow you around online, increasing anxiety and deepening concern, whether that concern is founded or (more often) not. Targeted health ads may also have a re-traumatizing effect of sorts, keeping you from looking forward into the future, and remaining stuck in past medical worries. For example, if you searched for tips to deal with grief at some point, your search engine may continue giving you similar content well past your original search, bringing up the grief you experienced once again.

Overall, targeted health and medical advertising can do far more harm than good. But how do you stop it while still being able to search online? After all, knowledge can be empowering and online advice can be helpful. For example, think about new moms! For this group, online advice can help give them the knowledge and confidence they need to give their babies the best care.

What should you do?

Unfortunately, you don’t have control of your personal health-related information once it’s been collected. Even though you haven’t voluntarily given it, the extent of what you can do to legally retaliate is extremely limited. Even if a consumer somehow discovers exactly what information has been collected on them, they have no control over what is done with it and there is no way for them to access or alter it. It seems grim, right? But there is a solution!

You likely currently use Google (or perhaps Yahoo) when you search online using a browser. However, the best (and easiest!) way to safely protect your health and medical information is to start searching in private. Nothing makes this easier than Startpage, the world’s most private search engine. Luckily for you, you don’t need to make any huge changes to start protecting your data. You operate it the same way as you would Google or Yahoo and like other browsers, it’s free.

What is Startpage?

Startpage is the world’s most private search engine that delivers Google search results, without any tracking or data collection, through a proprietary anonymizing process. Using Startpage’s ‘Anonymous View’ feature, you can view websites without leaving a trace, therefore eliminating your risk of becoming a victim of health targeting. Fast Company calls “this alternative search engine … Google without the privacy headaches.”

There’s no hitch or caveat either. Privacy isn’t an afterthought at Startpage – it’s the primary reason for the search engine’s existence. Robert Beens, Startpage’s CEO, states, “We don’t collect, share, or save any personal information. That means not setting cookies. It means not storing IP addresses. We don’t store your searches, and we don’t profile you.”

It’s time to take the target off your back and start protecting your health and medical information. For a truly private search, which you can do directly from your URL bar, install Startpage’s browser extension. It truly is that simple. To get Startpage, completely free:

  1. Go to your browser extension store
  2. Locate the Startpage extension and add it your browser
  3. Start searching privately!

If you, a family member, or friend is experiencing a medical concern, speak with a medical professional, call 911, or go to a hospital emergency room.

Health Data Privacy