The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is warning Internet users to think twice before using medical websites to look for answers about health concerns.
If you post a question in a forum or by e-mail, that information generally becomes the property of that site. While medical information you share with your doctor is guaranteed privacy under the HIPPA Act, records created by WebMD and other health sites are not covered. And the company would not be liable for damages if private information were somehow leaked.
Potentially an advertiser could see your post about a condition and decide to track you down, or your post could turn up in a Google search for symptoms. Someone might choose to share their struggle with depression with others in a forum. Someone typing “suicidal thoughts” in a search engine, might be directed to that post. Or a potential employer searching by your e-mail address might also be shown that result.
Sites will also often sell you information to third-party sites. WebMD has an option for you to opt out of sharing your information.
Another concern about going public with health information, is that drug-seeking individuals may target people with particular health problems in order to steal their medication. A friend undergoing cancer treatment was warned by officers investigating a break-in at her home that prescription drug thieves will search out people with conditions that require pain medication.
WebMD cautions users to be careful about the information they share, which is a good policy no matter what kind of site you are visiting. It may feel like you’re having a private conversation with a few other people when you discuss a problem in a forum, but in reality the whole world is eavesdropping.