Yahoo! and other Internet providers are hooking up with the goal of learning all about your medical history, they targeting you with ads peddling expensive drugs.
It’s a particularly noxious use of metadata and amounts to a form of cyberstalking to our way of thinking.
BloombergBusinessweek’s Jordan Robinson and Sharon Pettypiece dissect the practice:
The Big Business of Selling Prescription-Drug Records
Since the days of 19th century remedies such as castor oil laxatives and mercury syphilis tablets, pharmacists and patients have had a tacit understanding: Whatever you buy is confidential. No longer. Drugmakers and Internet companies are quietly joining forces to link pharmacy records with registrations at websites to target ads to people reflecting their health conditions and their prescription drugs.
In a process known as a matchback, third-party companies assign patients unique numerical codes based on their prescription-drug records. Websites use the same process to assign codes to registered users. Then databases can be linked—without names changing hands. That lets pharmaceutical companies identify groups who use a specific medicine and send them tailored Web ads.
Drug companies say the technique complies with federal medical privacy laws because patients’ names are concealed. Still, critics see it as a breach of confidentiality. “Marketers are treating our health data as if we were buying a pair of pants or a book,” says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy group in Washington. “That’s unconscionable.”
And here’s Pettypiece describing the practice in a Bloomberg Business interview:
How Marketers Know If You’re Buying Viagra
Drugmakers and Internet companies are quietly joining forces to link U.S. pharmacy records with online accounts to target ads to people based on their health conditions and the prescription drugs they buy.
You have to wonder at what point people are going to say “Enough.”
That our most sensitive of personal is parsed through the metadata game should be troubling to everyone. Are you taking an antidepressant? Taking an antiviral for a sexually transmitted disease? If so, you’re fair game for targeting, just as surely as a drone operator tracks a faceless subject then fires off a Hellfire missile.
To quote an old friend, “This shit has gotta stop.”
UPDATE: Reflections on medical times past. . .
Born at the very first stage of the Baby Boom, we grew up an America where the level of inequality was the lowest in the nation’s history in which young white people looked forward to prosperous futures. [Not so for people with more melanin in their skin, but for one young Midwesterner, a world of possibilities seemed to lie ahead].
Back in those days, prescription drug advertisements were barred from television, radio, and general audience newspapers and magazines. Only medical trade journals carried the ads, in which glowing claims and increasingly glizty graphics were with a large gray mass of data, including [supposedly] all the bad things that might happen to patients prescribed the nostrum in question.
Consumers could find that same information, but since there wasn’t an Internet in those days and long distance calls cost big money [up to $100 or more in 2014 dollars], finding out meant a trip to the library.
In other words, it took a real effort. But in those days, you got to know your doctor, and if you were too sick to make into his [almost always his] office, he’d come by the house to question, probe, probe, and stick as needed. And in making that house call, the doctor learned a lot more about his patient, ranging from home cleanliness and even eating habits should he ask to look around the kitchen.
But these days, much of our medical world experience is commercially mediated, and we are inundated with medical ads tailored for our personal circumstances, our prescription intake monitored not only by online efforts, but also by those discount cards needed to get the good prices at drug stores grown big as supermarkets, with drugs occupying only a small portion of floor space.
Those cards track your every purchase, compile the data, then sell it to, among other enterprises, insurance companies which can alter you rate should they see you’re buying notable quantities of sweets.
The medical relationship has transformed for a personal interaction to a mediated experienced tailored to sucker us into with buying vastly overpriced drugs that are often only slightly tweaked versions of medicines gone generic after patent expiration.
While the doctor of our youth, the man in the white coat, exercised considerable power, it was a relationship tempered by community mores and values and legislation limiting the ability of corporations to direct hustle the afflicted.
Which model is the better to build on?