MU professor warns consumers about sharing medical information online

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COLUMBIA- A study conducted by an MU professor shows sensitive medical information could be put in the wrong hands without people knowing.

MU associate law professor Sam Halabi encourages people to be aware of the potential risks that come from putting their medical information on social media and using medical apps. Halabi released an article arguing current laws put too many consumers' sensitive medical information at risk. 

"There's really not too many sources of information to tell you anything that you provide onto a digital platform, and that could be a wearable technology that could be the searches you do in Google. Everything is part of a data collection process that is aimed to be sold to advertisers to make products," Halabi said.

Halabi said some of those products are beneficial for users, but there is no real way to determine if the data users are submitting is truly anonymous. He said in some cases, companies use this information to support consumer's medical issues.

"Information helps technology developers create applications that can help people manage things like diabetes or keep track of irregular heart rhythm," Halabi said.

However, some use consumer information to blackmail consumers and commit crimes.

"The vast majority is used for marketing and targeting. In some cases, this means malicious targeting like when people want to steal your identity for purposes of illicit crime rings," Halabi said.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects the privacy rights of medical patients in many cases.

However, HIPAA does not cover data collection by social media, wellness apps, and similar services.

Halabi said his interest in health data security breaches was in part fueled by Cambridge Analytica. The UK-based political consulting firm came under fire for using Facebook users' information without their consent before the 2016 presidential election.

Halabi said companies should only use a consumer's data as long as the consumer has given their consent.

"People just want to get on Facebook or they just want to use their Gmail and so in many ways, they don't face a real choice about how their personal information, especially health information is harvested and sold or used," Halabi said.

"We encourage users to be aware that all of the information they put out there can be collected, transferred, sold and otherwise used. So, be really careful when you share your wellness information," he said. "Be really careful about posting a diagnosis on Facebook because it is part of this world of collected data."