Keeping Google and Facebook from knowing about your health-related Internet searches is not easy. SciLogs directs our attention to a new study conducted by Tim Libert at the Annenberg School for Communication that found “91% of health-related pages relay the URL to third parties, often unbeknownst to the user, and in 70% of the cases, the URL contains sensitive information such as ‘HIV’ or ‘cancer’ which is sufficient to tip off these third parties that you have been searching for information related to a specific disease.”
In some ways, this isn’t too surprising. If you do a Google search for a certain disease, Google will obviously know that you’re searching for it. But even just typing a full web address into Chrome’s search bar will often let Google know what you’re searching for since many of those web addresses also contain the name of the disease that you want to learn more about.
And let’s say you don’t search through Google and just find a link to health information through privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo — there’s still a good chance that Facebook will know you’re searching for information on a certain disease. Why? Because websites such as the Center for Disease Control’s HIV information page contain “Share” and “Like” buttons for Facebook, which are apparently enough to let Facebook know that you’ve visited the page even if you never click on them.
Websites such as WebMD, meanwhile, send user information to as many as 34 different domains.
Libert says that government and nonprofit websites need to do a better job of auditing their code to make sure that information on which users are clicking on which health-related pages aren’t shared with third parties. Check out a quick video of him describing his rather disturbing findings below.