Does your smartphone know more about your health than you do?

Smartphones and tablets hold great promise as tools for patient engagement, which also means they’re well-stocked hunting grounds for advertisers. A New York Times article (As Smartphones Become Health Aids, Ads May Follow) documents the rapid growth in the use of mobile devices for health searches (up 5x in 2 years) and differences between the behavior of mobile users and those on PCs. Mobile users are much more likely to search for the 20-something age group’s concerns of pregnancy, herpes and HIV than the gastroenteritis, heart attacks, gout and shingles that pique the interest of PC-based users.

The article describes how advertisers are getting on the bandwagon, placing context sensitive searches on health topics. That’s leading to user concerns about privacy. If anything, the typical user is probably insufficiently worried about what they’re sharing. As I’ve pointed out (What if Google finds out you have cancer before you do?), search providers have access to a bevy of information that can provide a highly detailed profile of individual users. Since the time I wrote that post in 2007, social networks have taken that surveillance to the next level, by collecting information about online interactions with others. Mobile takes things even further by combining the same search data with information on a person’s movements and real-time location.

Users expect that a search for pregnancy would turn up an ad for a pregnancy test, but they might be a little more creeped out if their phone tells them that it’s likely they’ve just been exposed to HIV based on their location, who they’re texting and about what, search history etc. I don’t think that scenario is far-fetched. All the pieces are in place to make it happen.

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