WASHINGTON — The government's health insurance website is quietly sending consumers' personal data to private companies that specialize in advertising and analyzing Internet data for performance and marketing.
The scope of what is disclosed or how it might be used was not immediately clear, but it can include age, income, ZIP code, whether a person smokes, and if a person is pregnant. It can include a computer's Internet address, which can identify a person's name or address when combined with other information collected by sophisticated online marketing or advertising firms.
The Obama administration says healthcare.gov's connections to data firms were intended to help improve the consumer experience. Officials said the firms are barred from using the data to further their own business interests.
There is no evidence that personal information has been misused. But connections to dozens of third-party tech firms were documented by technology experts who analyzed healthcare.gov and then confirmed by the Associated Press. A handful of the companies were also collecting highly specific information. That combination is raising concerns.
Leading lawmakers on Tuesday asked the administration to explain how it oversees the data firms to make sure no personally identifiable information is improperly used or shared.
"This new information is extremely concerning, not only because it violates the privacy of millions of Americans, but because it may potentially compromise their security," Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to the administration.
Created under President Barack Obama's health care law, healthcare.gov is the online gateway to government-subsidized private insurance for people who lack coverage on the job. It serves consumers in 37 states, while the remaining states operate their own insurance markets.
Administration spokesman Aaron Albright said outside vendors "are prohibited from using information from these tools on healthcare.gov for their companies' purposes." The government uses them to measure the performance of healthcare.gov so consumers get "a simpler, more streamlined and intuitive experience," he said.
Albright said healthcare.gov comports with standards set by the federal National Institute for Standards and Technology. But recent NIST guidance cautions that collecting bits of seemingly random data can be used to piece together someone's identity.
The privacy concerns come against the backdrop of Obama's new initiative to protect personal data online. Separately, the administration is getting the health care website ready for the final enrollment drive of 2015, aiming to have more than 9 million people signed up by Feb. 15 for subsidized private coverage.