NHS Choices erectile dysfunction

Digital Pharma: NHS Facebook tracking under fire

pharmafile | November 26, 2010 | News story | Medical Communications Digital Pharma blog, Facebook, online privacy, patient information 

The government has been criticised for failing to protect patient confidentiality after it was revealed it allows Facebook to collect details of visits to the official NHS website.

Many pages on NHS Choices contain Facebook’s popular Like button, but it is not widely known that these can allow the social network to log details of who visits those pages.

The way NHS Choices is using such social features was uncovered by Mischa Tuffield, a developer at online identity firm Garlik.

In a statement Garlick said: “This episode just shows how the privacy of every one of us is being compromised by the ill judged or ill informed actions of those in real positions of trust.

“What right has the NHS to share any information about the browsing of NHS Choices with Facebook? The Like button is engineered such that even if it is not clicked, it still passes information about the user to Facebook, even if they are not logged into Facebook at the time of the visit.”

One of those concerned about the situation is Labour MP Tom Watson, who suggests such third party interaction should be run on an opt-in system, rather than the current opt-out model.

In a letter to health secretary Andrew Lansley he said: “I understand the demands to offer government service online but this should not be achieved at the price of privacy. I urge you to take steps to ensure that third party websites should not have access to such information.”

NHS Choices does of course have a privacy policy page – though whether visitors to the site read this is another matter – and it only says Facebook collects data on pages that have a Like button.

This data includes what pages were looked at and when, and the IP address, browser and operating system used during the visit. If visitors are logged into Facebook during their visit to NHS Choices, their user ID number is also be collected.

There is no mention of the three other third-party companies – Google Analytics, AddThis and Webtrends – that are also informed every time a user visits certain NHS Choices pages. Moreover, Tuffield notes that Facebook can collect data from some NHS Choices that don’t have a Like button at all.

NHS Choices

NHS Choices is the most popular health information website in Europe, attracting over 100 million visitors in the last year – an 10% increase on the previous 12 months.

It recently topped a Which? investigation into medical websites, that concluded the site ‘excelled for its breadth of information’ and contained ‘medically robust information’.

Dominic Tyer is web editor for Pharmafocus and InPharm.com and the author of the Digital Pharma blog He can be contacted via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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