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Hidden Surveillance by Consumer Health Websites


Hidden Surveillance by Consumer Health Websites

Behavioural Tracking Practices and Disclosure

Final report to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada Contributions Program 2013-2014

Jacquelyn Burkell
Alexandre Fortier

Faculty of Information and Media Studies The University of Western Ontario London, Ontario

March 31, 2014

Download the report..

Executive Summary

Behavioural tracking presents a significant privacy risk to Canadians, particularly when their online behaviours reveal sensitive information that could be used to discriminate against them. This concern is particularly relevant in the context of online health information seeking, since searches can reveal details about health conditions and concerns that the individual may wish to keep private. The privacy threats are exacerbated because behavioural tracking mechanisms are large invisible to users, and many are unaware of the strategies and mechanisms available to track online behaviour. In this project, we seek to document the behavioural tracking practices of consumer health websites, and to examine the privacy policy disclosures of these same practices. The results of our research demonstrate that tracking is widespread on consumer health information websites; furthermore, sites recommended by Information Professionals are similar to sites returned in Google searches in terms of overall tracking, though they show lower levels of third-party advertiser presence. Privacy policy disclosure of tracking practices is largely ineffective, and website visitors cannot easily determine tracking practices from a review of the website privacy policies. Taken together, these results suggest that alternative mechanisms are required to detect and/or mitigate or neutralize the behavioural tracking measures used on many consumer health information websites.

Our goal is to raise awareness of behavioural tracking and potential responses by communicating these results, and information about the risks of and responses to behavioural tracking, to three different groups: the academic community, Library and Information Science professionals, and the general public. This communication is carried out using a variety of mechanisms including presentations, publications, public lectures, and an educational video. In addition, we will provide education regarding behavioural tracking and associated risks to an important group of professional intermediaries: librarians. Armed with this education, librarians will be better able to select privacy-respecting information resources for their clients, and they will also be better prepared to address behavioural tracking as part of the information literacy education for the general public that they undertake as part of their professional practice.