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Research detects ad trackers on NHS websites


Parliamentary Correspondent

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NHS websites are providing alerts to digital advertisers when people seek sensitive medical advice, it has been revealed – despite the Government criticising the use of the technology.

Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, has announced an investigation into ad trackers, or ‘cookies’, that help businesses target likely customers, because of fears of potential harm.

However, researchers from Cookiebot, a company that detects trackers on websites, and campaigners at the group European Digital Rights have found that websites carrying such trackers included many run by the Government. Their report shows the sites include NHS portals that have been sending data on citizens’ browsing to companies such as Google and Facebook.

Eliot Bendineli, lead technologist for the Data Exploitation Programme at Privacy International, says in the report it is “pernicious” that they should appear on sites owned by the state, including those relating to sensitive health conditions including HIV, mental health and abortion.

“People’s behaviour on these sites can be used to infer sensitive facts about their health condition and life situation,” the authors of the study write.

“This data will be processed and often resold by the ad tech industry and is likely to be used to target ads, and potentially affect economic outcomes such as insurance risk scores.

“These citizens have no clear way to prevent this leakage, understand where their data is sent, or to correct or delete the data.”

Sensitive questions

The researchers entered 15 searches related to sensitive health conditions into a search engine and looked for trackers on the top results from public sector websites. They found that 60% of such pages in the UK had ad trackers. These included NHS pages answering questions such as “I have HIV, now what?”; “What are the signs of mental illness”; and “I want to terminate my pregnancy”.

The researchers say Google is the “kingpin” of online tracking, monitoring visits to 82% of the main government websites of EU countries, and that it is of “special concern” that the company is capable of cross-referencing data from trackers with its other services, such as search and GMail, to associate browsing with people’s identities.

Wright told The Times that these methods would be examined by The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), an advisory body on the benefits and risks of digital technologies.

He said: “Anyone who has searched for a product and then seen adverts for similar products appear in their browser has experienced microtargeting, so the CDEI will lead an investigation to see how and why online targeting techniques are used and what the benefits and harms might be.”

Image: Electronic Frontier Foundation graphic, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 through Wikimedia

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