Why Internet privacy matters for patients

Most of us have grown accustomed to Google and Facebook. When I had an Android phone, I quickly got over the initial creepiness factor of going into a restaurant, bar, or store and having a message from Google popping up with reviews, menus, or coupons. I liked that Google could recommend times to leave or asked if I went to a certain spot often. But Facebook and Google are basically large advertisers. They sit on our data and offer their “eyeballs” to companies. S.J.Res. 34, a bill that has passed both the Senate and the House is something different. By rolling back Obama-era Internet protections, the bill would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet history.

Google and Facebook already capture a lot of your internet data so what’s another company jumping into the big sell-off game? Cox, Time Warner, AT&T don’t just know when you visit Google or Facebook, they know your entire internet history, they are also not int he advertising business. ISPs have no landing page on which to run your ads. We don’t got to cox.com to look something up, and we don’t go to ATT.com to spend time. These companies are merely the roads on which our data moves. Imagine when you went on a toll road, you had to enter your destination, anything or anyone you picked up along the way and then the company that owned the road could sell that information to the highest bidder.

As a medical student, I try to take a view of how laws will impact patients, and this law is bad for patients  —  or potential patients. The first thing that many patients do when they don’t feel right is look up their symptoms on the internet. So if they use Google to ask about a fever or a lump in their neck, Google is now sitting on this data, so Google serves up an ad on cough medicine. When Cox or Time Warner see this internet search, they don’t have a the means to serve you an ad, but they do have a lot of people who would like to buy this data.

Imagine a scenario where a lot of people in a community start looking up fatigue/indigestion/confusion. Cox is the sole ISP for this community and has a ready buyer in an insurance company. The insurer sees the uptick in a constellation of symptoms that could point toward cancer or heavy metal poisoning and when enrollment comes around next year, flags this are for a premium hike or pulls out of offering insurance to these people altogether.

These companies are sitting on miles and miles of servers filled with the most intimate and relevant data; data that reveals flu, cancer, depression. And Congress has dismantled one of the few barriers that kept this scenario in the realm of dystopian science fiction. This law is bad for consumers and bad for patients.

Jonathan Coleman is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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