Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Threat Intelligence

11/22/2019
04:40 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

Researchers Explore How Mental Health Is Tracked Online

An analysis of popular mental health-related websites revealed a vast number of trackers, many of which are used for targeted advertising.

Researchers who analyzed a collection of mental health-related websites found a vast majority embed "an impressive number" of trackers mostly used for marketing purposes. More than a quarter embed third parties engaged in programmatic advertising and Real Time Bidding (RTB).

Eliot Bendinelli, a technologist with UK non-profit Privacy International, says the organization wanted data protection agencies to take action because it believed there was a fundamental problem with the tracking industry. Its project began with an investigation into sales in the field of ad tech companies, credit rating agencies, ad blockers, and related organizations, he says.

"We were building a case, and basically we think what they're doing is unlawful," Bendinelli continues. While waiting for agencies to act, the research team wanted to find an example of how tracking is taking place on Web pages where people go to read and share sensitive data.

"We wanted a concrete example of how tracking is happening on websites where you think you are safe, and where you are looking up or exchanging data that is sensitive and personal," he adds. They chose sites related to mental health because, as Bendinelli puts it, people may research mental health conditions online because they aren't yet ready to discuss it in person.

The World Health Organization reports 25% of the European population suffers from depression or anxiety each year, and about half of major depressions are untreated. This means every day, millions of people are researching depression online, whether it's to seek help or support someone in their lives who could be suffering from a mental health condition.

At the same time, the Internet's current business model relies on targeted advertisement to make money, tracking individuals and using their personal data to build accurate ad profiles.

To learn how these trackers follow people to mental health websites, Bendinelli and his research team analyzed 136 popular depression-related websites in France, Germany, and the UK. They used a VPN so the search results would be country-specific and began by searching terms related to depression in each of the countries' languages. They collected websites listed on the first page of search results and using a tool called Webxray, analyzed data including the number of trackers on each website, number of cookies dropped, and other analytics data.

What they found "unfortunately, was not surprising," Bendinelli says. "Google is pretty much everywhere," was a key takeaway, and he wasn't shocked to find 97% of websites analyzed had some form of Google tracker. Ninety percent had Doubleclick, which is a business owned by Google that lets online advertisers and publishers display advertisements on their websites. Right behind Google, in terms of numbers, were Facebook and Amazon trackers, he adds.

"These trackers' sole purpose was to do targeted advertising," says Bendinelli.

Real Time Bidding

More than a quarter of webpages analyzed embed third parties who engage in programmatic advertising and Real Time Bidding, a process by which ad impressions are bought and sold. When someone visits a website, a "bid request" is sent to an ad exchange. This request contains various types of data such as demographical data, location data, and browser history. The ad exchange sends this data to advertisers, who bid for the ad impression as it's presented to the site visitor. The one who bids highest will win the impression and have its ad served to users.

The problem, Bendinelli explains, is many companies are learning information the website visitors may not necessarily want to share. "It could be shared with literally hundreds of companies," he says of bid request data. While it isn't sold, it can be used for targeted ads.

Also concerning was the researchers' discovery that a small subset of websites offering depression tests would directly or indirectly share responses and results with third parties. Of the nine testing websites they found, two were storing test results and one was sending responses to another company not mentioned anywhere on the site, Bendinelli explains.

Researchers followed up with the websites they had flagged. One completely removed the test. "They realized they were doing something wrong," he notes.

Bendinelli and Frederike Kaltheuner, tech policy fellow with the Mozilla Foundation, will present more of these research findings at the Black Hat Europe 2019 conference in a briefing entitled "Is Your Mental Health for Sale?"

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "In the Market for a MSSP? Ask These Questions First"

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 10/23/2020
7 Tips for Choosing Security Metrics That Matter
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer,  10/19/2020
Russian Military Officers Unmasked, Indicted for High-Profile Cyberattack Campaigns
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  10/19/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-24847
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
A Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) vulnerability is identified in FruityWifi through 2.4. Due to a lack of CSRF protection in page_config_adv.php, an unauthenticated attacker can lure the victim to visit his website by social engineering or another attack vector. Due to this issue, an unauthenticat...
CVE-2020-24848
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
FruityWifi through 2.4 has an unsafe Sudo configuration [(ALL : ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL]. This allows an attacker to perform a system-level (root) local privilege escalation, allowing an attacker to gain complete persistent access to the local system.
CVE-2020-5990
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in the ShadowPlay component which may lead to local privilege escalation, code execution, denial of service or information disclosure.
CVE-2020-25483
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
An arbitrary command execution vulnerability exists in the fopen() function of file writes of UCMS v1.4.8, where an attacker can gain access to the server.
CVE-2020-5977
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in NVIDIA Web Helper NodeJS Web Server in which an uncontrolled search path is used to load a node module, which may lead to code execution, denial of service, escalation of privileges, and information disclosure.