A cookie for your health problems

Imagine this. You enter a shop (let’s call it Shop A) to browse, and you look at an item of interest (let’s call it Item Q). While you do so, an unbeknown to you, a shop assistant places a sticker on your back, revealing that you looked at this item, and when and where. You leave and a few days later enter another shop, where a shop assistant says “I understand a few days ago you were interested in Item Q, here are some similar items you might be interested in”.

You might initially think “how helpful”, but afterwards you might start to wonder how the second shop knew about your interest, and to think that it’s a bit off that they seemed to have been able to track your movements and interests.

But try this as well. You go to your doctor, because you’re concerned about a medical condition – let’s say you fear you may have a sexually transmitted disease. As you leave the doctor secretly puts a sticker on your back saying when and where you visited and what you were concerned about. You later visit a pharmacy to buy your lunch. While you queue to pay an assistant approaches you and says openly “I understand you’ve been making enquiries recently about STDs – here are some ointments we sell”.

The perceptive reader may by now have realised I am clunkily trying to illustrate by analogy how cookies, and particularly tracking cookies work. We have all come to curse the cookie warning banners we encounter on web sites based in Europe, but the law mandating them (or at least mandating the gaining of some sort of consent to receive cookies) was introduced for a reason. As the Article 29 Working Party of European Data Protection Authorities noted in 2011

Many public surveys showed, and continue to show, that the average internet user is not aware that his/her behaviour is being tracked with the help of cookies or other unique identifiers, by whom or for what purpose. This lack of awareness contrasts sharply with the increasing dependence of many European citizens on access to internet for ordinary everyday activities

The amendments to the 2002 EC Directive, implemented in domestic law by amendment regulations to the The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 aimed to ensure that there was “an adequate level of privacy protection and security of personal data transmitted or processed in connection with the use of electronic communications networks” (recital 63). And Article 5 of the Directive specified that

Member States shall ensure that the storing of information, or the gaining of access to information already stored, in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user is only allowed on condition that the subscriber or user concerned has given his or her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information, in accordance with Directive 95/46/EC [the 1995 Data Protection Directive], inter alia, about the purposes of the processing

Of course, the requirement that users of electronic communications networks should give consent to the storing of or gaining access to information stored in their terminal equipment (i.e. that they should consent to the serving of cookies) has not been an easy one to implement, and even the Information Commissioner’s Office’s in 2013 rowed back on attempts to gather explicit consent, claiming that there was now no need because people were more aware of the existence of cookies. But I made what to me was an interesting observation recently when I was asked to advise on a cookie notice for a private company: it appeared to me, as I compared competitors’ sites, that those which had a prominent cookie banner warning actually looked more professional than those that didn’t. So despite my client’s wariness about having a banner, it seemed to me that, ironically, it would actually be of some professional benefit.

I digress.

Just what cookies are and can achieve is brought sharply home in a piece on the Fast Company website, drawing on the findings of a doctoral research student at the University of Pennsylvania. The paper, and the article, describe the use of web analytics, often in the form of information gathered from tracking cookies, for marketing in the health arena in the US. Tim Libert, the paper’s author discovered that

over 90% of the 80,000 health-related pages he looked at on the Internet exposed user information to third parties. These pages included health information from commercial, nonprofit, educational, and government websites…Although personal data is anonymized from these visits, they still lead to targeted advertisements showing up on user’s computers for health issues, as well as giving advertisers leads (which can be deciphered without too much trouble) that a user has certain health issues and what issues those are

The US lacks, of course, federal laws like PECR and the DPA which seek – if imperfectly – to regulate the use of tracking and other cookies. But given that enforcement of the cookie provisions of PECR is largely non-existent, are there similar risks to the privacy of web users’ health information in the UK?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under consent, cookies, Data Protection, PECR

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