March 6, 2011

Online Pharmacies: Convenient or Dangerous?

Filed under: Uncategorized — publicandprivatespace @ 10:36 pm

By: Sarah Williams

The number of people that use online pharmacies is growing every year as our society progresses technologically. Online pharmacies provide a convenient, fast, seemingly private way to buy prescription drugs. Customers feel less embarrassed not have to ask a pharmacist personal questions face-to-face and prescription drugs can be easily bought without an actual prescription. However, 96% of the 7,000 websites that the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has reviewed have not been approved by as safe, legitimate and private institutions. While online pharmacies may seem like a convenient option, until they are properly regulated and monitored, they provide a threat to personal and medical privacy.

People who use online pharmacies can be tracked by cookies that are placed on the computer’s hard drive and this information can be sold to third-party advertisers. To understand how cookies are a threat to personal information, a little bit must be understood about how the internet works. Each individual computer has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. They are a unique, numerical address that allows a website to send information to a personal computer. Since IP address change for the same device day-to-day, there has to be some way for the host of the website to know that the person has visited the site before. This is why cookies, small text files, are put on a computer’s hard drive. Cookies allow for shopping carts in online stores and personalization of advertisements on different websites. They are also why websites remember an individual’s name, email address and even username and password. Normally, cookies allow for a more convenient, personal use of websites, but when medical information is the thing being saved, it becomes a privacy issue. Normally, a host website has no way of identifying the individual computer itself, but when used in conjunction with email addresses, cookies can be used to make a profile about an individual.

In a study done by AM Peterson, 64% of online pharmacies used cookies when someone created a profile to order anything from them. This information can be sold to advertisers or used in other ways by illegitimate pharmacies, which are the great majority. Advertisers take this information and build a profile about people that is used to personalize the ads they see when they visit the site again. Not only are these advertisers using medical information, there is a danger that the drugs they suggest are not compatible with the ones that someone is already using, posing a threat to one’s health. Also, in the study done by AM Peterson, only 40% of the websites that were surveyed had a safe system for transmitting medical ad financial information. Not only is there a threat to medical privacy, there can be many problems with credit card information being stolen and identify theft.

The host website itself uses it to recommend other products or drugs that can go along with the ones a customer have already looked at or purchased. In most circumstances this wouldn’t be a problem, it could even be helpful, but when the information being used is personal medical information, it becomes an invasion of privacy.

Privacy policies, the paragraphs of legal jargon that only a very few people read through, much less understand, are the only thing that say what a website is allowed to do with the information a person gives them. Another problem is that only 40% of online pharmacies have them. They should be a mandatory part of an online pharmacy’s web page, even if most people simply skim through them.

In conclusion, while online pharmacies may be convenient and easy, they provide some very serious risks that usually outweigh the benefits. There are still too many privacy and legal issues that have not been resolved. Once Congress catches up with internet laws and puts in place regulations that make it safe, online pharmacies could be a great addition to the healthcare field.

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