If you following online privacy you know tracking is everywhere, but it's still important to keep calling out the most egregious examples. Today in JAMA research I did with @AriBFriedman @davegrande and @matthew_s_mccoy shows that 99% of COVID information pages have trackers. 🧵
The design of the study is fairly straight-forward: we found the top sites Google points you to if you look up COVID information and analyzed them for third-party requests and cookies, traced data back to companies, and broke it down by the type of site (Gov/Academic/Commercial)
How much tracking was there? 99% of sites have tracking when you look up COVID. Commercial sites have 77 third-party requests and 130 cookies on average. Government sites 8 requests, 4 cookies. Academic 14 requests, 10 cookies.
Commercial sites have more because they tend to skew towards news, and as @RDBinns and I showed previously, news sites have the most online tracking. But why do Government and Academic sites have tracking? Well, it's because Google (and others) provide "free" audience analysis.
Here's what I found this morning on COVID websites from @HHSGov and @WHO. Each of which have several @google trackers, notably @googleanalytics. Most troubling is @Google allows advertising of pharmaceutical products: support.google.com/adspolicy/answ…
Obviously @HHSGov and @WHO aren't ad-supported, they're negligent. But what about commercial sites? This is what the COVID pages for @cnn and @webmd look like - an absolute bonanza of third-party tracking. Again, by adtech companies that will target you for pharmaceuticals.
Anne Borden King of @BadScienceWatch
wrote in the NYTimes that @Facebook showed her targeted ads for phony cancer remedies. @Facebook is also on 46% of the COVID sites we looked at: are they properly segregating and protecting that information or playing by their normal rules?
Another company we found is @Oracle who also tracks 46% of sites. No idea why a database company would track COVID sites? Well, it's because @Oracle has quietly bought up tracking companies for years and consolidated their networks to offer fine-grained targeting.
The saddest part of all this is the privacy problems with COVID mirror the general pattern we've seen with the pandemic. People in Europe have governments that protect them, Americans simply don't. Demand more in November and vote for candidates who'll stop predatory tracking.
You can find the paper here: timlibert.me/pdf/McCoy_et_a…
Also, thanks @AriBFriedman, @matthew_s_mccoy, and @davegrande from @PennMedicine for bringing me in on the project. And a note to other CS researchers: make friends outside the discipline, don't be discouraged by a narrow conception of "novelty", there's a bigger audience!

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