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​The creepy side of data mining: Selling "sick" lists

When it comes to health care and data mining, the two are now merging in a way that might cause some consumers to feel sick.

A segment of the data mining industry is tapping everything from social media to medical websites to create marketing lists of individuals whom are believed to suffer from diseases like diabetes or cancer, according to a Bloomberg report. Often, the consumers have no idea they are on the list, or that their names and contact information are being bought by marketers.

Selling your secrets: How marketers collect and deal personal health data

The revelation comes as Americans increasingly are concerned about privacy, given the disclosure from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the NSA's surveillance program, for instance. Facebook recently found itself in the crosshairs of consumer anger when it disclosed that it ran a research experiment on users, without their knowledge, which tweaked the emotional content of posts seen by some members.

While the data-mining applications of health care companies might seem less intrusive, the practice touches millions of Americans, with their names compiled on health-specific lists and sold to marketers for pennies, Bloomberg notes. Some consumers don't even have the diseases that they're on the list for, such as 42-year-old Dan Abate, who doesn't have diabetes but ended up on a list called "diabetes interest," the report adds.

The practice of slicing and dicing information to use in marketing was the focus of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in December, with Senator Jay Rockefeller, D.-West Virginia, raising questions about the practices and how consumers can protect themselves.

Even seemingly innocuous information, such as what types of TV a consumer watches, can help land them on a list. An executive at Acurian, a company that enrolls consumers for clinical trials, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that it can get a "very, very close bead on whether or not you have the disease we're looking at" by examining lifestyle factors, such as what type of car a consumer drives.

One list highlighted by Bloomberg, the "Suffering Seniors" list, includes 4.7 million people over the age of 55 who supposedly suffer from ailments including Alzheimer's and depression. The list includes "perfect prospects for a variety of offers" ranging from cable-TV to lawn care, according to an ad for the list.

Under current law, consumers don't have a right to know what information is held about them by data brokers for marketing purposes, according to a Senate Commerce Committee report on the data broker industry. While that's concerning, it might be even more sensitive when it comes to issues about consumers' physical and mental health.

"No federal law provides consumers with the right to correct inaccuracies in the data or assumptions made by data brokers on their own profiles," the report adds.

That means if you end up on a "mobility challenged" list, you may find it difficult to move your name from that database. That is, if you even know you're on it.

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