The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed to ban the online counseling service BetterHelp from sharing its customers’ sensitive mental health data with advertising networks and marketers.
A settlement between the FTC and BetterHelp also requires the company to pay $7.8 million as restitution to its users whose sensitive data has been shared with third parties such as Facebook and Snapchat.
BetterHelp is a popular online counseling service providing therapy services to individuals needing support, like people who suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, addiction, etc.
FTC alleges that BetterHelp followed bad practices in handling the data of people who visited its website or used its apps, including those who have not signed up for its counseling services.
The FTC says these practices, which the government agency characterizes as “illegal,” can introduce grave risks to the well-being of vulnerable people in unstable states, threatening to aggravate their condition.
“When a person struggling with mental health issues reaches out for help, they do so in a moment of vulnerability and with an expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” commented S. Levine, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Director.
“Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit.”
In an official complaint submitted by the FTC, the consumer protection organization says that BetterHelp has, despite its promises to the contrary, shared email addresses, IP addresses, and information users filled in a preliminary health questionnaire during signup, with Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest.
The FTC claims that third parties used this information for advertising purposes and, more specifically, to identify consumers with similar profiles and promote BetterHelp’s counseling services.
FTC further explains that the way the prompts to enter sensitive information were presented to users left them no choice but to disclose that data to sign up for counseling services.
They further alleged that BetterHelp did not secure consent from the subjects to use their data for advertising. Moreover, it did not take any precautions to limit how the receiving third parties can use the shared health information or with what other entities they’re allowed to share it.
“The $7.8 million that BetterHelp must pay under the proposed order will be used to provide partial refunds to consumers who signed up for and paid for BetterHelp’s services between August 1, 2017, and December 31, 2020.” – FTC
In addition to that, if the order is approved, BetterHelp will also be obliged to:
- Obtain the user’s consent before sharing their data with third parties for any purpose.
- Introduce strong safeguards to protect consumer health data.
- Demand and ensure that third parties who received BetterHealth user data in the past have now deleted it.
- Limit the duration of time the service can retain sensitive health information.
BetterHelp responded to FTC’s proposal and allegations with an official statement on its site, claiming that the advertising strategy it followed between 2017 and 2022 didn’t deviate from industry-standard practices used by all major health providers and healthcare systems in the country.
“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,” states BetterHelp.
“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 counseling service provider says it has reached a settlement with the FTC to pay $7.8 million, but did not admit any wrongdoing.