Where do you turn for information about chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases? Why, Dr. Google of course. The most Googled sex question in 2020 was “What are the symptoms of chlamydia?” according to From Mars.  More than two million truth-seekers asked that question.

Does anyone consider the possible cost to privacy of asking such questions in a space that is heavily scrutinized and shared with who-knows-who? Apparently not, but perhaps they should, because while sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are alarmingly common, they’re not something you really want everyone to know you’re worried about.

It’s certainly a timely issue, since STD rates are setting new records. According to new data from the CDC, STDs hit an all-time high in 2019, with nearly 2.5 million Americans contracting chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis, the sixth straight year of record highs.  

Public health officials are very unhappy about the increase.

“Less than 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates in the U.S. were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and advances in chlamydia diagnostics made it easier to detect infections,” said Raul Romaguera, DMD, MPH, acting director for CDC’s Division of STD Prevention. “That progress has since unraveled, and our STD defenses are down.” (By the way, there aren’t a lot of symptoms of chlamydia but it is serious and can cause reproductive issues in women. Learn more at the CDC site).

There are, of course, all kinds of places where you can find information about STDs and other health questions more or less in private. The CDC is a good place to start, as are major hospitals. The Mayo Clinic, for example, has an excellent health information site that includes a symptom checker. It’s much safer to peruse such sites than to just put a query on Google or other public search engines.

Posts & queries aren’t very private

In fact, doctors and public health officials are aghast at how lightly so many of us treat our personal health information. Medical professionals are prohibited from revealing private health information except in rare cases. Unfortunately, chlamydia and other STDs can be such a case. Physicians who treat patients with a communicable STD must try to find out who the patient’s sex partners were so they can be treated too. But other than that, the information remains private — until you post it on the internet.

“But,” you may say, “Nobody can see my Google queries, right?” The answer, unfortunately, is, it depends. While it’s true that other individuals can’t just Google you and see your queries, search data is sold, traded and generally shopped around by all kinds of data brokers and marketers. While certain types of information are supposed to be private, once something exists somewhere it is likely to emerge eventually — a lesson learned oh so sadly by an endless stream of politicians, promoters and scam artists. 

Or, as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) puts it in a recent post: “Opaque industry practices result in consumers remaining largely unaware of the monitoring of their online behavior, the security of this information and the extent to which this information is kept confidential. Industry practices, in the absence of strong privacy principles, also prevent users from exercising any meaningful control over their personal data that is obtained.” 

Think we exaggerate? Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading privacy group, which asks: “Would you want strangers to know where you or your child work or go to school? How about everyone seeing searches that reference your medical history, financial information, sexual orientation or religious affiliation?”

Let’s say you’re applying for a job. There are companies that collect all kind of data from just about everywhere and sell it to employers. Maybe your search queries themselves won’t show up but you may well be included in a database of consumers who have shown an interest in STDs.

Ditto for health insurance. Obamacare doesn’t let insurers deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions but if the information is available, there’s always wiggle room for companies that would rather not take a chance on you.

And then there’s everyone else — you know, your mother, your friends and so forth. As you know, a search query rapidly produces a stream of ads on the topic you’ve been researching. So the next time your friend, mom or lover picks up your smartphone, she or he may be treated to a screenful of ads about STD remedies — not exactly an ideal conversation starter.

Think this vast warehouse of consumer data is legally sacrosanct? EFF again: “Unfortunately information stored with a third-party is given much weaker legal protection than that on your own computer. It can be all too easy for the government or individual litigants to get access to your search history and connect it with your identity.  

And finally, there’s just plain old theft. Besides all the semi-legitimate ways that companies can get information about you, there’s also the good old-fashioned hack. Data is constantly leaking, getting lost and being flat-out stolen. Hacks are supposed to be reported but the process is hardly fool-proof. You might say it’s like leaving a valuable item on the sidewalk in New York City. It might still be there a little later but then again, well, you know.

Shockingly, some types of data theft may not even be illegal. Some privacy attorneys say that mass “scraping” of data from social media sites using automation actually doesn’t qualify as a data breach under U.S. law, igniting a debate in legal circles over whether the laws should be strengthened.