The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed requiring online counseling service BetterHelp to pay $7.8 million as part of a settlement addressing charges it shared clients’ personal health data with Facebook, Snapchat, and other third parties for advertising purposes.
If the agency’s order against BetterHelp becomes final, it would be the first FTC action that remunerates consumers for violations involving private health data, according to a press release Thursday. The $7.8 million would be used to provide partial refunds to consumers who paid for BetterHelp’s services between August 2017 and December 2020.
The commission voted 4-0 to adopt the proposed order. The FTC will decide whether to make it final after a 30-day public comment period.
BetterHelp, which offers online counseling to adults and teens, requires patients to fill out questionnaires that ask for names; email addresses; birth dates; and sensitive health information, such as whether they have experienced depression or had suicidal thoughts.
Despite telling patients BetterHelp would not use or disclose personal health data beyond what its counselors need to know, the company shared email addresses, computer location, and health data with Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest, the FTC alleged in its complaint.
The order would ban BetterHelp from sharing personal health data with third parties that use targeted advertisements and limit other ways it can share consumer data.
“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.”
BetterHelp did not respond to a request for comment.