When consumers around the country started getting letters from a company that they had never heard of, inviting them to participate in clinical trials for medical conditions that they hadn’t disclosed to many or didn’t even have, the alarms started to sound, quietly at first but with increasing urgency. Were doctors, hospitals, or other providers breaching medical privacy laws? Had there been a serious but unpublicized leak or unwelcome disclosure of patient data?
Kudos to the information site Buzzfeed for digging in and finding out how Acurian Health, a firm with an address in a rural county outside of Philadelphia, exploits state-of-the-art Internet marketing and data-mining techniques to learn, in creepy fashion, about Americans and their illnesses.
It does this by buying marketing information that a range of companies collect on customers, some of it volunteered and others extracted from data points like zip codes, purchasing patterns, and available demographics: Do you live in an upscale or modest neighborhood? Are you and your neighbors most likely to be highly educated professionals or blue-collar laborers?