Mar 022023
 March 2, 2023  Posted by  Breaches, Featured News, Govt, Healthcare, Laws, U.S.

Lesley Fair writes:

In the hierarchy of confidential data, health information ranks right up there. And in the hierarchy of health information, details about a person’s mental health may be among the most confidential. But according to the FTC, that’s not how online counseling service BetterHelp viewed it. The FTC says the company repeatedly pushed people to take an Intake Questionnaire and hand over sensitive health information through unavoidable prompts. And it promised to keep that information private through statements like: “Rest assured – any information provided in this questionnaire will stay private between you and your counselor.” But from the FTC’s perspective, a truthful statement would have been “Rest assured – we plan to share your information with major advertising platforms, including Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest.” A proposed FTC settlement with BetterHelp includes $7.8 million for partial refunds for BetterHelp customers and conveys an unmistakable message about just how seriously the FTC takes this kind of betrayal of trust.

BetterHelp offers online counseling services through that name and through specialized versions for particular audiences – for example, Pride Counseling for members of the LGBTQ community, Faithful Counseling for people of the Christian faith, Terappeuta for Spanish-speaking clients, and Teen Counseling for teenagers who enroll with parental permission.

Since BetterHelp was founded, more than two million people have signed up, entrusting the company with their personal information, much of it related to the status of their health – and their mental health. For example, the company’s Intake Questionnaire asked people to disclose if they’re “experiencing overwhelming sadness, grief, or depression,” if they’re having thoughts they “would be better off dead or hurting [themselves] in some way,” if they’re taking medication, and if they’ve been in therapy before.

Reassurances that medication information will be kept private and that email will not be shared. Images were included in the FTC's complaint.To assuage concerns about revealing personal information online or through an app, BetterHelp made a variety of confidentiality promises to consumers. Visitors to the site were told at the outset that the company collected “general and anonymous background information about you and the issues you’d like to deal with in online therapy” so the person can be matched “with the most suitable therapist.” Although the exact wording changed over time, the company assured people that aside from a few narrow uses related to providing online counseling services, their private information would remain private. In addition, for more than three years, BetterHelp told people thinking about signing up for Faithful Counseling, Pride Counseling, or Teen Counseling that their email addresses would be “kept strictly private” and “never shared, sold or disclosed to anyone.”

Despite those promises, the FTC says BetterHelp used a wide variety of tactics to share the health information of over 7 million consumers with platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for the purpose of advertising. You’ll want to read the complaint for details, but here are just a few examples. In 2017, BetterHelp allegedly uploaded the email addresses of all current and former clients to Facebook – nearly 2 million in total – to target them with ads to refer their Facebook friends to BetterHelp for mental health services. During another period, the FTC says BetterHelp disclosed to Facebook for advertising purposes the previous therapy of 1.5 million people who visited or used BetterHelp’s site. The source of that information: their responses to the intake question “Have you been in counseling or therapy before?”

But that’s not all. According to the complaint, BetterHelp broke its privacy promises by disclosing to Snapchat the IP and email addresses of approximately 5.6 million former visitors to target them with BetterHelp ads.

Read more at the FTC.

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