FTC: Online counseling company shared consumer data with social media platforms

A popular online counseling company has agreed to a settlement with the federal government following allegations that the company shared consumer data with social media platforms for targeted advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the settlement requires BetterHelp, Inc. to pay $7.8 million to impacted consumers.

The money would be used to give partial refunds to consumers who signed up for and paid for BetterHelp’s services between August 1, 2017, and December 31, 2020.

The FTC has also issued a proposed order banning the company from sharing consumer health data for advertising.

“Most of the people’s information that was handed over were email addresses,” said Miles Plant, a senior attorney with the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. “Companies like Facebook and Snapchat know exactly how to uncode those to match that information directly with people’s user profiles.”

The FTC said it didn’t only affect people who signed up for counseling services with the company – even people who just visited the website or app may have potentially had their sensitive information shared, too.

We asked the FTC if this is leading to concerns about consumers in need of mental health care treatment being hesitant to seek help because of companies allegedly sharing consumer data.

“We’re concerned that it will, one, violate people’s trust,” said Plant. “It will unearth a lot of their own sensitive information and secrets that they want to keep to themselves and also it will keep them from maybe seeking health treatment in the future whether from a health app or doctor out of fear.”

In response to the settlement, BetterHelp released a statement that said:

“We are deeply committed to the privacy of our members and we value the trust people put in us by using our services. Our technology, policies, and procedures are designed to protect and secure our members’ information so it is not used or shared without their approval and consent.

BetterHelp and the FTC have reached a settlement in regard to BetterHelp’s advertising practices that were in effect between 2017 to 2020. The FTC alleged we used limited, encrypted information to optimize the effectiveness of our advertising campaigns so we could deliver more relevant ads and reach people who may be interested in our services. This industry-standard practice is routinely used by some of the largest health providers, health systems, and healthcare brands. Nonetheless, we understand the FTC’s desire to set new precedents around consumer marketing, and we are happy to settle this matter with the agency. This settlement, which is no admission of wrongdoing, allows us to continue to focus on our mission to help millions of people around the world get access to quality therapy.

To clarify, we do not share and have never shared with advertisers, publishers, social media platforms, or any other similar third parties, private information such as members’ names or clinical data from therapy sessions. In addition, we do not receive and have never received any payment from any third party for any kind of information about any of our members.”

The FTC argues that sharing email addresses can in fact lead to private information and people’s identities being shared.

The agency had this warning for consumers.

“Oftentimes it’s easy with just the click of a button to hand over information about what your diagnosis has been, what medications you’ve taken in the past,” said Plant. “We just think people should be cautious about it.”

The settlement agreement is subject to a public comment period, and the Commission will then decide whether to make the proposed consent order final.

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