Experts Raise Privacy Concerns on Telehealth Sites Gathering Users', Patients' Data

Doctors and advocates have praised virtual healthcare access as it increases treatment for drug use disorders. Nonetheless, there has been concern about the privacy of these websites that provide treatment and support.

Is there no risk to your personal data? Are your medical records safe and secure?

This worry emerged as the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision revived the national discourse over online medical privacy, Wired reported.

Report Analysis

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, the results of a 16-month investigation of 12 prominent mobile health (mHealth) sites with a focus on drug use were made public by the Opioid Policy Institute (OPI) and the Legal Action Center (LAC).

However, experts are concerned about these sites monitoring their users’ browsing habits, even though this data is not considered medically sensitive.

Bicycle Health, Boulder Care, Bright Heart Health, Confidant Health, DynamiCare Health, Kaden, Loosid, Ophelia, PursueCare, reSET-O, SoberGrid, and WorkItHealth were all analyzed on their respective websites at four different points in time between March 2021 and July 2022.

Experts used Blacklight, a privacy tool developed by news nonprofit The Markup.

According to the report, ad trackers and other similar technologies on all 12 sites gathered, identified, and exchanged users’ information with third parties.

The researchers observed that throughout the 16 months, the average number of these trackers usually rose.

Furthermore, 11 of the 12 sites utilized third-party session cookies, which classify visitors and track them across other websites to serve advertisements.

Four of the twelve used session recording to track every user’s action – from mouse clicks and scrolls to keystrokes, even if the text is never submitted.

All 12 websites gave data to ad tech businesses that purchase and sell user data for advertising purposes; 10 utilized Google Analytics which may monitor user metrics, and six used Meta Pixel to transfer user data to Facebook.

Danger of Ad Tracking

In the field of addiction therapy, where a patient’s medical history may be intrinsically criminal and stigmatized, the sharing of any patient information is frequently carefully controlled or downright banned.

In addition to the protections offered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), patients seeking treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) have the extra benefit of being shielded from having their treatment records used against them by 42 CFR Part 2 (commonly referred to as “Part 2”).

While it is typical practice for advertising networks to collect data on web visitors, these sites are communities for people dealing with highly stigmatized medical issues.

According to Wired, experts are worried about the potential outcomes of the tracking rather than any actual malicious use of the data.

Therefore, Part 2 is necessary because sensitive information shared during drug abuse treatment might affect their job, ability to get home, child custody, and even freedom.

Professionals are now wary that, even unintentionally, data gathered on telehealth sites might result in the same damage that Part 2 was meant to avoid.

Written by Trisha Kae Andrada

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