The Federal Trade Commission announced it has issued a proposed order banning online counseling service BetterHelp, Inc. from sharing consumers’ health data, including sensitive information about mental health challenges, for advertising. The proposed order also requires the company to pay $7.8 million to consumers to settle charges that it revealed consumers’ sensitive data with third parties such as Facebook and Snapchat for advertising after promising to keep such data private.
This is the first Commission action returning funds to consumers whose health data was compromised. In addition, the FTC’s proposed order will ban BetterHelp from sharing consumers’ personal information with certain third parties for re-targeting—the targeting of advertisements to consumers who previously had visited BetterHelp’s website or used its app, including those who had not signed up for the company’s counseling service. The proposed order also will limit the ways in which BetterHelp can share consumer data going forward.
“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,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “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.”
California-based BetterHelp offers online counseling services under several names, including BetterHelp Counseling. It also markets services aimed at specific groups such as Faithful Counseling focused on Christians, Teen Counseling, which caters to teens and requires parental consent, and Pride Counseling, which is targeted to the LGBTQ community. Consumers interested in BetterHelp’s services must fill out a questionnaire that asks for sensitive mental health information—such as whether they have experienced depression or suicidal thoughts and are on any medications. They also provide their name, email address, birth date and other personal information. Consumers are then matched with a counselor and pay between $60 and $90 per week for counseling.
At several points in the signup process, BetterHelp promised consumers that it would not use or disclose their personal health data except for limited purposes, such as to provide counseling services. Despite these promises, BetterHelp used and revealed consumers’ email addresses, IP addresses, and health questionnaire information to Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for advertising purposes, according to the FTC’s complaint.
For example, the company used consumers’ email addresses and the fact that they had previously been in therapy to instruct Facebook to identify similar consumers and target them with advertisements for BetterHelp’s counseling service, which helped the company bring in tens of thousands of new paying users and millions of dollars in revenue.
According to the complaint, BetterHelp pushed consumers to hand over their health information by repeatedly showing them privacy misrepresentations and nudging them with unavoidable prompts to sign up for its counseling service. Despite collecting such sensitive information, BetterHelp failed to maintain sufficient policies or procedures to protect it and did not obtain consumers’ affirmative express consent before disclosing their health data. BetterHelp also failed to place any limits on how third parties could use consumers’ health information—allowing Facebook and other third parties to use that information for their own internal purposes, including for research and development or to improve advertising.
BetterHelp also misled users and the public in 2020 by falsely denying news reports that it revealed consumers’ personal information, including their health information, with third parties, according to the complaint.
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. In addition to banning BetterHelp from disclosing health information for advertising, the proposed order also prohibits the company from misrepresenting its sharing practices and requires it to:
- obtain affirmative express consent before disclosing personal information to certain third parties for any purpose;
- put in place a comprehensive privacy program that includes strong safeguards to protect consumer data;
- direct third parties to delete the consumer health and other personal data that BetterHelp revealed to them; and
- limit how long it can retain personal and health information according to a data retention schedule.
The Commission voted 4-0 to issue the proposed administrative complaint and to accept the consent agreement with the company. Commissioner Christine S. Wilson issued a concurring statement.
The FTC will publish a description of the consent agreement package in the Federal Register soon. The agreement will be subject to public comment for 30 days after publication in the Federal Register after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Instructions for filing comments will appear in the published notice. Once processed, comments will be posted on Regulations.gov.
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