Cropped image of depressed man at the psychotherapist. Doctor is making notes while listening to his patient

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Data brokers are selling your mental health information

Researcher found records for sale for as little as $0.06.

 

Mikael Thalen

Tech

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

The findings, gathered over a two-month-long period, revealed that certain data brokers are willing to sell lists of thousands of individuals diagnosed with mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for prices starting at $0.20, with discounts for buying in bulk. One company offered 435,780 records for $0.06 per record.

The data can contain everything from names, home addresses, and emails to information on one’s ethnicity and income.

The study’s author, researcher Joanne Kim, notes that the issue increased significantly after countless Americans began using online services and mental health apps amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unbeknownst to many, most of those apps are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), meaning that private health data can be shared and sold with little-to-no oversight.

Kim reported that of the 37 data brokers contacted during her research, 26 responded to inquires regarding the purchase of mental health data. In the end, 11 agreed to sell her data on those diagnosed with mental health disorders.

The most engaged brokers also offered up a wide range of other data, including people’s insurance plans, DNA test results, and information related to abortion clinics. Non-medical records, including criminal records, religious affiliations, credit scores, and social security numbers were offered as well. One offered a data set called “active living Jews.”

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

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

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

“The nation is in dire need of a comprehensive federal privacy law, and this report recommends that the federal government should also consider generally banning the sale of mental health data on the open market,” Kim said.

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