PHARMATRAK: Tracks Consumer Behavior on the Web
Boston-based Pharmatrak is "surreptitiously" tracking consumers who visit their pharmaceutical clients' Web sites, and critics say the practice pushes the limits of Internet privacy, the Washington Post reports. Pharmatrak can follow the activity of Web surfers on pages maintained by 11 pharmaceutical companies by placing "cookies," or ID codes, on consumers' computers. This technology enables Pharmatrak to collect information about browsing habits and allows Pharmatrak's pharmaceutical clients to "compare and improve their Web sites." Although the current system tracks users anonymously, it could be used to identify them in the future. Pharmatrak's Web site states, "In the future, we may develop products and services which collect data that, when used in conjunction with the tracking database, could enable a direct identification of certain individual visitors," but adds that the company would not take advantage of such information. Privacy advocates claim that Pharmatrak is acting "inappropriately" by not notifying Internet users that they are being tracked as they view "sensitive health care information." Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm (D) said, "They've taken stealth to a new low. ... It is a classic example of corporate surveillance. There's no way your average computer user has any idea." However, Pharmacia Corp., a client of Pharmatrak, "treats information about visitors with great care and does not receive any personally identifiable information from Pharmatrak," Pharmacia spokesperson Claudia Kovitz said. And Pharmatrak officials claimed that they do not post privacy policies at client Web sites informing consumers of how the company collects and uses information, because "there's no need to ... they don't have the technical ability or intention to collect names." However, Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University, remains concerned that "such stealthy scrutiny will dissuade people" from using the Web as a health care resource. "This is analogous to having hidden cameras and spies tracking people's movements and communication on the Web. The lack of privacy rules on the Web is the No. 1 barrier to people getting better health care information, because they're afraid," she said (O'Harrow, 8/15).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.