Blogs & Comment

Opt out of data mining

A court case in Vermont decides whether your medical info should be shared

The scramble for data isn’t restricted to advertising in the online world. If you think about it, your data is constantly being collected, whether it’s what you buy using an Air Miles card or the calls you make on your cell phone. In the recent case of Sorrell v. IMS Health underway in Vermont, it’s the availability of your medial prescription records on trial. It all happens for one reason: to sell you more stuff. Data miners argue they’re making things more convenient for you. More info allows them to provide you the most relevant ads and services. But what’s at stake for you?

In the case of health information firms having access to your medical records, Latanya Sweeney, a visiting professor of computer science at Harvard told the New York Times a nameless prescription record could theoretically be enough to identify someone who might not want others to know that he or she takes something such as anti-depressants.

In 2007, Vermont passed a law that lets each doctor decide whether pharmacies can sell prescription records linking him or her by name to the kinds and amounts of drugs prescribed. Now three health information firms are challenging the law, saying it restricts commercial free speech, and argue access to prescription records helps pharmaceutical companies market efficiently to doctors whose patients would most benefit from specific drugs.

The situation is similar to online advertising, except the patient has even fewer rights than the online user. In December, the Federal Trade Commission called for creation of a “do-not-track” system and the Obama administration backed an online “privacy bill of rights” focused on commercial data-gatherers. The Digital Advertising Alliance, a coalition of online marketing groups introduced a program last year that lets advertisers opt out of advertising tailored to them.

The trial is ongoing, and even if the law doesn’t change, it’s still up to your doctor to opt out. A professor at The Booth School of Business in Chicago, Richard Thaler, thinks the user should have more power and points to the U.S. government’s Blue Button initiative as a good example. The protocol, an icon that users click to get data, is already providing a secure way for Medicare beneficiaries to share their medical history with health care providers, putting a little more power in the hands of patients. There is also a smartphone app developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation that gives veterans access to their health records and the ability to receive wellness reminders on their phone. 

A shift is taking place where consumers will start benefiting from all the data they share. So what do you think? Are companies that use your info for marketing and advertising helpful or invasive? Do you deserve a piece of the data pie? For now, the official answers hang in law’s balance.