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Hidden Surveillance on Consumer Health Information Websites
FIMS Publications
  • Jacquelyn A Burkell, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, UWO
  • Alexandre Fortier, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, UWO
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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.

Citation Information
Jacquelyn A Burkell and Alexandre Fortier. "Hidden Surveillance on Consumer Health Information Websites" (2013)
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