Facebook Changes to Protect Health Support Group Users’ Privacy

Facebook is applying some changes to Facebook Groups that talk about health conditions. This move was prompted because of the criticism on Facebook Groups that despite its being offered as private and confidential, third parties get access to health group members’ information for advertising purposes.

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint in January alleging that the content of private FB health groups were disclosed to third parties. A number of members of health support communities stated that advertisers targeted them with offers to products and services connected to medical conditions which were only talked about in closed, private FB health groups.

People with health issues use the groups to get advice and support. The groups were established to help individuals with various health problems, such as mental health issues, cancer and substance abuse disorder. Members of the groups discuss information freely believing that the communities were private. However, it turned out that advertisers were able to get in touch with the group members, and the public could also find out if a person/s were members of the health groups.

Facebook was cited as deceptively getting patients to join closed and private health communities but their personal health information (PHI) were actually being employed to gain advertising income.

The changes that Facebook will make is its reply to the complaint. The changes will permit the anonymous posting of information by users in health groups. The FB groups will have the special designation as Health Support Group. So, these groups will get different treatment unlike other Facebook Groups. Group members will be permitted to request group administrators to post information on their behalf. Doing so will post the messages without having a particular user’s Facebook profile or name being connected to the posts. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, announced the changes at Facebook’s yearly developer conference.

Although the change is a good move and will allow comments to be shared in confidence, a group administrator can still connect a comment to a specific user and facts talked about in the groups can still be utilized for advertising reasons.

HIPAA Rules does not cover Facebook. Also, since Facebook is not a business associate of a HIPAA-covered entity, it does not need to adhere to HIPAA’s Privacy and Security Rules. To secure consumer privacy, there must be a federal law to restrict the collection and usage of users’ sensitive data and to stop social media as well as other tech firms from undertaking deceptive tactics.

This isn’t the only Facebook problem involving health information that have emerged recently. It was also discovered that third-party health application developers were sharing users’ information with Facebook, mostly, without the consent of users. The issue was showcased in a Wall Street Journal report and many viewed it to be a major breach of privacy. Facebook answered that its policies stringently do not allow app developers to share the sensitive health data of application users with Facebook and app developers are responsible to ensure sensitive data is not shared with Facebook.

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Christine Garcia is the staff writer on Calculated HIPAA. Christine has several years experience in writing about healthcare sector issues with a focus on the compliance and cybersecurity issues. Christine has developed in-depth knowledge of HIPAA regulations. You can contact Christine at [email protected]. You can follow Christine on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ChrisCalHIPAA