WASHINGTON DC — A popular online consulting firm has agreed to a settlement with the federal government after allegations the company shared consumer data with social media platforms for targeted advertising.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said the settlement committed BetterHelp, Inc. to pay $7.8 million to affected consumers.
The money would be used to provide partial refunds to consumers who signed up and paid for BetterHelp’s services between August 1, 2017 and December 31, 2020.
The FTC has also issued a regulation prohibiting the company from sharing consumer health information for advertising purposes.
“Most of the information provided was email addresses,” said Miles Plant, senior counsel for the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. “Companies like Facebook and Snapchat know exactly how to decode this to match that information directly to people’s user profiles.”
The FTC said it’s not just affecting people who have signed up for consulting services with the company — even people who just visited the website or app could also potentially have shared their sensitive information.
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We asked the FTC if this raises concerns that consumers who need psychiatric treatment are reluctant to seek help because companies allegedly share consumer data.
“We fear that, for one thing, it could hurt people’s trust,” Plant said. “It will bring to light a lot of their own sensitive information and secrets that they want to keep to themselves, and it will also discourage them from perhaps seeking health care in the future, whether from a health app or a doctor out of fear.” “
In response to the settlement, BetterHelp released a statement stating:
“We are deeply committed to the privacy of our members and value the trust people place in us by using our services. Our technology, policies, and procedures are designed to protect and secure our members’ information so that it is not used or shared without their consent and consent.
BetterHelp and the FTC have reached an agreement regarding BetterHelp’s advertising practices that were in effect between 2017 and 2020. The FTC claimed that we used limited, encrypted information to optimize the effectiveness of our advertising campaigns so that we could serve more relevant ads and reach people who might be interested in our services. This industry standard practice is routinely employed by some of the largest healthcare providers, healthcare systems and healthcare brands. Nonetheless, we understand the FTC’s desire to set new precedents in consumer marketing, and we look forward to settling this matter with the agency. This settlement, which is not an admission of wrongdoing, allows us to remain focused on our mission of bringing quality therapy to millions of people around the world.
For the avoidance of doubt, we do not and have never shared private information such as member names or clinical data from therapy sessions with advertisers, publishers, social media platforms or other similar third parties. Furthermore, we have never received and never received payment from any third party for any information about our members.”
The FTC argues that sharing email addresses can actually lead to the sharing of private information and people’s identities.
The agency had this warning for consumers.
“It’s often easy to submit information about your diagnosis and medication history with just one click,” Plant said. “We just think people should be careful with that.”
The Settlement Agreement is subject to a public comment period, and the Commission will then decide whether the proposed Consent Order will become final.
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