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Healthcare.gov and Social Media: Strange Bedfellows

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The term "Obamacare" has taken on a life of its own these days. Instead of universal health coverage, people now use the term as proof of government incompetence. The vitriol people use in relation to this word now has seemingly less to do with the policy itself and more to do with the experiences that people encountered on the Healthcare.gov website.

In the grand scheme of things, the performance of the government's healthcare site hardly stands out as an isolated egregious incident. Three weeks ago Yahoo's Marissa Mayer apologized for outages that had many of their users without email service for several days. And remember Twitter's series of outages after it became an overnight sensation? The sobering fact is that no matter how much virtual testing you do simulating users, when real people appear in droves, you will find glitches that simulations simply can't approximate.

Yet many bigger questions abound. One in particular is the crafting of Healthcare.gov's privacy policy, as it appears to miss the fundamental principles of privacy in American society. While there's a compelling argument to be made for our government having health information on all Americans and certainly on its health care applicants, there are also surprisingly intrusive clauses that are built into HealthCare.gov's privacy policy that may outweigh any benefits. Let's start with the question: How trustworthy is any government with broad information on its citizens, especially sensitive information such as health conditions? If history is a judge, this is not likely a good idea. According to HealthCare.gov, it will "keep data collected long enough to achieve the specified objective for which they were collected." Come again? What does that even mean? It sounds like purposeful governmental ambiguity meant to protect itself in a court of law.

Furthermore, the privacy policy of HealthCare.gov echoes social media websites, meaning it looks as though it is meant to define its freedom to intrude rather than outline its limitations to protect the privacy of its applicants. For example, consider this curious sentence: "HealthCare.gov sometimes collects and uses your personally identifiable information (PII) if you made it available through third-party websites."

Does that mean we can expect the government to be a paying customer of Facebook and Google, acquiring their ill-gotten data in order to aggregate as much information as possible about its applicants? That's not as farfetched a thought as you might think. For example, if I post on Facebook episodes of my daily life relating to my health, such as griping about a sore back or a late night Krispy Kreme binge, the government would have access to that information and could use it against me as a marker about my health habits. The government could also see the types of ads I click as a means of creating a predictive health profile. And what about the friends I keep and my photos of me out for a drink? According to the policy, this information is fair game to be collected and used in evaluating my application for coverage.

But that's not all. The privacy policy of Healthcare.gov goes on to say the following, too: "If you have an account with a third-party website and choose to 'like,' 'friend,' follow, or comment, certain PII associated with your account may be made available to HealthCare.gov based on the privacy policy of the third-party website and your privacy settings within that website."

It is this clause that really solidifies the relationship of these strange bedfellows: Healthcare.gov and Facebook. This lack of scruples appears to give the government an open license to track and monitor who my friends are, what I follow, what I say and what I like. It could use this information to further refine my profile and potential health risks. So rather than creating a price scale based on my age, height, weight, medical history and geographic location, the government is now apparently in the business of keeping a lifetime archive of my social life and also building a price scale based on my perceived habits and lifestyle, as they see fit to interpret it. This hardly sounds like what 8 presidents from both sides of the aisle envisioned for the American public when declaring Universal Healthcare a desirable objective.

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