E&C Demands Facebook Briefing on Exposure of Users’ Personal Health Information

February 20, 2019 by TWN Staff
An Illustration of Facebook logo, on May 9, 2016. Facebook won a court case in China against Zhongshan Pearl River Drink Factory for using the name face book. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA)

On Tuesday, Energy and Commerce Committee leaders wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding a briefing from the company following a consumer complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission that personal health information of certain Facebook users who were participating in “closed” groups may have been exposed. According to the complaint, users of these groups shared deeply personal health information, such as information about substance use disorders, about the challenges of parenting transgender children, HIV status and past history of sexual assault. This comes in the wake of a recent scandal whereby a bug in the company’s photo software allowed authorized programmers to access photos that users had uploaded but not shared publicly.

The request was made to Zuckerberg by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

“Despite the indications that the groups were private and anonymous, people and companies who should not have been admitted to these groups gained access to them and to lists of group members,” Pallone and Schakowsky wrote.  “People used the member lists and other information from these groups to target and harass members of the groups.  Insurance companies may have used information from these private groups to make decisions about insurance offerings for group members.”

According to the consumer complaint, Facebook’s algorithms used personal information it collected from Facebook users to suggest and even solicit members of online support groups for a variety of medical conditions.

“This consumer complaint raises a number of concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies and practices,” the Committee leaders continued.  “Facebook’s systems lack transparency as to how they are able to gather personal information and synthesize that information into suggestions of relevant medical condition support groups.  Labeling these groups as closed or anonymous potentially misled Facebook users into joining these groups and revealing more personal information than they otherwise would have.  And Facebook may have failed to properly notify group members that their personal health information may have been accessed by health insurance companies and online bullies, among others.”

The Committee leaders requested a briefing from Facebook by March 1, 2019. Read the full letter, here.

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