by Dr. Joseph Mercola, Childrens Health Defense:
- Facebook’s Meta Pixel was found on 33 hospital websites, sending Facebook information linked to an IP address, which identifies individual computers and may be traceable back to an individual or household.
- The pixel tracks what doctors are searched for and health-related search terms added to search boxes or selected from dropdown menus.
- The Meta Pixel was found in patient portals from seven health systems; data being collected included names of medications being taken, descriptions of allergic reactions and upcoming doctors’ appointments.
- More than 26 million patient admissions and outpatient visits have been shared by the 33 hospitals using Meta Pixels, and that’s likely conservative.
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By now, most people are aware that if they “like” a certain page on Facebook, it gives the social media giant information about them.
“Like” a page about a particular disease, for instance, and marketers may begin to target you with related products and services.
Facebook may be collecting sensitive health data in far more insidious ways as well, however, including tracking you when you’re on hospital websites and even when you’re in a personal, password-protected health information portal like MyChart.
It does this via pixels, which may be installed without your knowledge on websites you visit. They can collect information about you as you browse the web, even if you don’t have a Facebook account.
Meta pixel found on hospital websites
According to Meta:
“It works by loading a small library of functions which you can use whenever a site visitor takes an action (called an event) that you want to track (called a conversion). Tracked conversions appear in the Ads Manager where they can be used to measure the effectiveness of your ads, to define custom audiences for ad targeting, for dynamic ads campaigns, and to analyze that effectiveness of your website’s conversion funnels.”
Even hospitals are opting into the data trackers, as evidenced by an investigation by The Markup, which tested websites from Newsweek’s top 100 U.S. hospitals.
Facebook’s Meta Pixel was found on 33 of the websites, sending Facebook information linked to an IP address, which identifies individual computers and may be traceable back to an individual or household.
The pixel tracks not only the IP address of the computer being used but also what doctors are searched for and search terms added to search boxes or selected from dropdown menus.
The Markup reported:
“On the website of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, for example, clicking the “Schedule Online” button on a doctor’s page prompted the Meta Pixel to send Facebook the text of the button, the doctor’s name, and the search term we used to find her: “pregnancy termination.”
“Clicking the “Schedule Online Now” button for a doctor on the website of Froedtert Hospital, in Wisconsin, prompted the Meta Pixel to send Facebook the text of the button, the doctor’s name, and the condition we selected from a dropdown menu: “Alzheimer’s.””
Meta Pixel installed on patient portals
Health care is increasingly going digital, making the privacy of patient portals like MyChart increasingly important.
In 2020, about 6 in 10 Americans were offered access to an online patient portal — a 17% increase since 2014 — and close to 40% accessed their records online at least once.
Overall, about one-third of those who used patient portals downloaded their online medical records in 2020, which is nearly double the amount that did so in 2017.
However, the data you’re accessing when using password-protected patient portals may also be sent to Facebook via pixels.
The Markup found the Meta Pixel in patient portals from seven health systems, including Edward-Elmhurst Health, FastMed, Novant Health and Community Health Network.
Data being collected included names of medications being taken, descriptions of allergic reactions and upcoming doctor’s appointments.
Novant Health, which removed the pixel after being contacted by The Markup, stated:
“We appreciate you reaching out to us and sharing this information. Our Meta pixel placement is guided by a third party vendor and it has been removed while we continue to look into this matter.”
The Markup is now collaborating with Mozilla Rally, using a browser add-on and crowd-sourcing to send data about the Meta Pixel on websites visited by study participants.
The aim of the study, which ran through July 13, and has been dubbed the Facebook Pixel Hunt, is to map Facebook’s pixel tracking network to better understand the types of information being collected across the web.
‘Quite likely a HIPPA violation’
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes it illegal for hospitals to share personally identifiable health data with Facebook and others unless an individual has consented to it.
As a result, it’s possible that Facebook’s Meta Pixel on hospital sites is illegal.
David Holtzman, a former senior privacy adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, told The Markup:
“I am deeply troubled by what [the hospitals] are doing with the capture of their data and the sharing of it. I cannot say [sharing this data] is for certain a HIPAA violation. It is quite likely a HIPAA violation.”
By June 15, at least seven of the hospitals that The Markup contacted had removed pixels from their appointment booking pages, while at least five of the health systems with Meta Pixels on their patient portals had removed the pixels.
However, to get an idea of the scope of the data being released, The Markup found that more than 26 million patient admissions and outpatient visits had been shared by the 33 hospitals using Meta Pixels, and that’s likely conservative.
The Markup reported:
“Our investigation was limited to just over 100 hospitals; the data sharing likely affects many more patients and institutions than we identified.”
In fact, anytime you browse the web you’re likely to come across a Meta Pixel, as they’re found on more than 30% of the most popular websites online.