Businesses are using 'smart thermometer' data to target ads to patients

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Businesses are increasingly using data from internet-connected medical devices in American households to target their advertising efforts, according to The New York Times.

This flu season, Clorox paid to access information from Kinsa, a developer of smart thermometers. The internet-connected thermometers, which Kinsa said are being used today in more than 500,000 American households, connect to a smartphone app, enabling users to track their fevers and symptoms over time.

Kinsa aggregates and de-identifies "illness data" from these half million households, providing companies like Clorox with information about which ZIP codes across the U.S. have experienced a spike in residents with fevers. Clorox then directed digital ads for its disinfectant products to those ZIP codes, according to the NYT.

Inder Singh, founder and CEO of Kinsa, told the NYT that the company sells its data to various businesses, although he declined to share names of other customers due to confidentiality agreements. He confirmed pharmacies and manufacturers have used the data to target ads for cough and cold products.

Mr. Singh stressed Kinsa only licenses information to customers that help with the company's mission to prevent the spread of illness through early detection. Clorox's disinfecting wipes, for example, can be used to support the CDC's recommendation to disinfect surfaces to prevent the spread of the flu.

Kinsa is only one example of a household "internet of things" device being used to detect sickness. Amazon recently filed a patent for its virtual voice assistant, Alexa, aimed at detecting whether a user is sick — and selling medicine or chicken noodle soup in response.

Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the NYT that business models like Kinsa's highlight the need for federal regulation of how consumer data is sold, despite the fact Kinsa's work seems to be compliant with existing privacy frameworks.

"Ultimately there should be a more uniform standard and it shouldn't be up to the whims of each company," she said. "It's less of a privacy question and more of an ethical question on what we think is acceptable for targeting people who are ill and what safeguards we want to have around that."

To read the NYT's article, click here.

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