Online counseling service BetterHelp agreed to return $7.8 million to customers to settle with the Federal Trade Commission for sharing health data it had promised to keep private, including information about mental health issues, with companies like Facebook. and Snapchat. The FTC’s proposed order announced Thursday also limits how the California-based company can share consumer data in the future.
BetterHelp said the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing and that the behavior for which he was penalized is standard for the industry.
However, Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said BetterHelp betrayed consumers’ most personal health information for profit.
“When someone struggling with mental health issues seeks help, they do so at a time of vulnerability and with the expectation that professional counseling services will protect their privacy,” Levine said in a statement. Levine called the proposed order “a strong reminder that the FTC will prioritize defending Americans’ sensitive data from illegal exploitation.”
The enforcement action follows a similar one on February 1 in which telehealth and prescription drug discount provider GoodRx Holdings was fined $1.7 million for sharing users’ personal health data with Facebook, Google and other third parties without Your consent.
The FTC has made clear its intention to crack down on the trafficking of sensitive health data by companies that are not strictly classified as health care providers and therefore not covered by HIPAA, the federal rules for privacy regulations governing the health care industry.
BetterHelp provides online counseling, including services geared toward Christians, teens, and the LGBTQ community. Clients interested in their services fill out questionnaires asking for sensitive mental health information, such as whether they have experienced suicidal thoughts and whether they are taking medication. They are then paired with counselors.
During the registration process, customers were promised that BetterHelp would not use or disclose their personal health information except for limited purposes, such as providing counseling, the FTC said.
The company disclosed data including email and IP addresses and questionnaire information to Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest for advertising purposes, the FTC said in its complaint. He also accused BetterHelp of misleading customers and the public in 2020 by falsely denying news reports that it had disclosed customers’ personal data to third parties.
Under the proposed order, BetterHelp will provide partial refunds to customers who used the service from Aug. 1, 2017, through the end of 2020, the FTC said.
BetterHelp called the data sharing practices for which it was penalized an “industry standard practice” that is “routinely used by some of the largest healthcare providers, healthcare systems and healthcare brands.”
“However, we understand the FTC’s desire to set new precedents around consumer marketing, and we are happy to resolve this matter with the agency,” it added in a statement on its website.