Influential advocacy groups on both coasts launched campaigns yesterday criticizing significant sectors of the American business world and its stewardship over two of the nation’s most sensitive online consumer information areas: medical record maintenance, and the commercial monitoring of online Web browsing behavior.
The alerts issued by the California Healthcare Foundation, Oakland, CA and the Center for Democracy and Technology, Washington, essentially pointed the finger at Internet healthcare marketers and the direct marketing industry, respectively, making arguments about consumer privacy that most direct marketers have heard before.
This latest series of reports shines new light into the corners of certain industry practices that are sure to raise new concerns on Capitol Hill over the security of personal healthcare information over the Internet. Specifically, how the influential Internet tracking and reporting agency DoubleClick, New York, is monitoring and compiling extensive new profiles of consumers as they travel over the Web.
In the case of Doubleclick, CDT not only released a new report, but launched an entire Web site and consumer education campaign (http://www.cdt.org/action/doubleclick.shtml) warning consumers they are being targeted through intrusive new Internet tracking technology that the group says Doubleclick agreed not to implement when it merged with catalog purchasing database company, Abacus, New York in 1999.
According to the CDT, DoubleClick plants “cookies” on the computers of many Internet users that it marries to names, addresses, and other personal information from Web sites where consumers have registered for access, special offers or free email newsletters. The organization claims in its communications to consumers that major Web sites “are making a profit by providing DoubleClick with your identity. Once in DoubleClick's hands, your personal identity can be linked to your ‘cookie’ whenever you visit any of the 1,500 Web sites in the DoubleClick network, which includes such prominent online companies as Altavista, the New York Times, and Sesame Street.”
Deirdre Mulligan, CDT Staff Counsel, said many consumers may have “already been double-crossed by DoubleClick.”
“Once Doubleclick knows who you are, it can tie information about your use of the Web garnered through its ‘cookies’ to information about your offline habits,” she said.
Similar complaints were made against the company last week in USA Today and other advocacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington, which plans to log a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by February 16th.
However, a related report making nearly the same claims was released yesterday by a completely different and unrelated group, the California Healthcare Foundation. In the CHCF study, new concerns over privacy were raised that were focused on both the use by marketers of consumers’ personal information as well as the security of the data and the procedures being used to maintain confidentiality throughout the healthcare industry.
The CHCF report claims that privacy concerns related to many health Web sites are not so much vulnerable to hackers, but that too many sites collect information about consumers without their knowledge or permission. It also hinted that the information might then fall into the hands of offline marketers as well.
Mark D. Smith, MD, and president of CHCF said the organization was aiming to protect the pubic interest, and to inform the discussion and debate by providing information to inform policymakers, regulators, consumer and the industry.
The organization’s research data was made public yesterday, the first day of the Internet Healthcare Coalition’s eHealth Ethics Summit in Washington, D.C.
More information on the report and the organization is available at www.ehealth.chcf.org.