Data brokers sell your mental health information

A study released this week by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy found that sensitive information about Americans’ mental health is being sold by at least a dozen data brokers.

The results, collected over a two-month period, showed that certain data brokers are willing to sell lists of thousands of people diagnosed with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at prices starting at 0 $.20 , with discounts for buying in bulk. A company offered 435,780 records for $0.06 per record.

The data can include anything from names, home addresses, and email addresses to ethnicity and income information.

The study’s author, researcher Joanne Kim, notes that the problem has increased significantly after countless Americans began using online mental health services and apps amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Little do they know that most of these apps aren’t covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which means private health data can be shared and sold with little to no oversight.

Kim reported that of the 37 data brokers she contacted during her research, 26 had responded to requests to purchase mental health data. In the end, 11 agreed to sell their data on people diagnosed with mental disorders.

The most dedicated brokers also offered a wide range of other data, including insurance plans, DNA test results, and abortion clinic information. Non-medical records, including criminal history, religious affiliation, credit score, and social security numbers were also offered. One offered a record titled “active Jews.”

“The 10 most engaged brokers promoted highly sensitive American mental health data, including data on people with depression, attention deficit disorder, insomnia, anxiety, ADHD and bipolar disorder, as well as data on race, age, gender, zip code, religion and children in the household, marital status , net worth, credit score, date of birth and single parent status,” Kim wrote.

Kim said the goal of her research is to educate Americans about how vulnerable their mental health information can be.

Kim warned that the data could be misused, not only by advertisers but also by scammers targeting individuals’ financial information. It could also be purchased by law enforcement agencies or health insurance companies, which Kim said could use the data to discriminately charge people for care or target vulnerable populations.

“The nation desperately needs a comprehensive federal privacy law, and this report recommends that the federal government should also consider banning the open market sale of mental health data across the board,” Kim said.


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*Initial publication: February 13, 2023 2:01 pm CST

Michael Thalen

Mikael Thalen is a Seattle-based tech and security reporter covering social media, data breaches, hackers and more.

Michael Thalen Data brokers sell your mental health information

Jaclyn Diaz

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