Facebook accused of leaking protected health data

Facebook privacy practices have come under fire after the company allegedly failed to protect the health data provided by users in “closed” groups, and lawmakers are demanding answers from execs and its staff.

On Tuesday (Feb.19th), US lawmakers sent a letter to CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg after a group of health privacy experts said that they filed a complaint against Facebook with the US Federal Trade Commission last December.

The 43-page complaint filed to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which was publicly released this week, claims that the personal information of Facebook users in “closed” groups may have been made available to third-party companies.

Health data

The FTC explained in its letter that members of these groups shared deeply personal health information, “such as substance use disorders, about the challenge of parenting transgender, children, HIV status, and past history of sexual assault.”

“Despite the indications 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. 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 a decision about insurance offerings for group members,” the US wrote in its letter to Zuckerberg.

Facebook has responded to its latest privacy complaint by blaming users for assuming its service granted them anonymity.

“Facebook is not an anonymous platform; real-name identity is at the center of the experience and always has been,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “It’s intentionally clear to people that when they join any group on Facebook, other members of that group can see that they are a part of that community, and can see the posts they choose to share with that community. There is value in being able to know who you’re having a conversation within a group, and we look forward to briefing the committee on this.”

FTC investigation

The FTC, which has been investigating Facebook for its privacy practices, is reportedly negotiating a record-setting fine against the company.

“In light of the Committee’s continuing commitment to protect the privacy of the American people, we request a staff briefing on the issues raised by the complaint no later than March 1, 2019,” the letter reads, “so we can better understand Facebook’s practices with respect to so-called closed and anonymous groups.”

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