Mental Health App Faces $7.8M Fine for Sharing Data

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BetterHelp, Inc., an online counseling service, will be required to pay $7.8 million to consumers to settle charges that it revealed sensitive patient information to third parties.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a proposed order banning BetterHelp, Inc. from sharing consumers' health data with certain third parties for re-targeting — targeting advertisements to users who previously had visited BetterHelp's website or used its app.

The California-based company offers online counseling services under several names, including BetterHelp Counseling and other apps focused on specific groups, such as Faithful Counseling for Christians and Teen Counseling for younger users.

According to the FTC complaint, BetterHelp, Inc., shared consumers' sensitive data with Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for advertising despite promises to keep such data private.

For example, at several points in the signup process, BetterHelp promised not to use or disclose consumers' personal health data except for limited purposes, such as to provide counseling services.

However, data shared with third parties include consumers' email addresses, IP addresses, and answers to a health questionnaire that asks for sensitive mental health information, such as whether consumers have experienced depression, had suicidal thoughts, and whether they are on any medications.

The FTC claims that the company attracted tens of thousands of new paying users by using consumers' data to instruct Facebook to identify similar consumers and target them with advertisements for BetterHelp's counseling service.

The proposed order released on March 2 also limits how BetterHelp can share consumer data going forward, including obtaining affirmative express consent before disclosing personal information to third parties and directing them to delete the personal consumer data that has already been revealed.

The FTC proposes that BetterHelp, Inc. must pay $7.8 million which 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.

Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, says: "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. Instead, BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit. Let this proposed order be a stout reminder that the FTC will prioritize defending Americans’ sensitive data from illegal exploitation."

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