The has moved to block online counseling company BetterHelp from sharing health data, including mental health information, with the likes of and for advertising. As part of a proposed order, BetterHelp has agreed to pay $7.8 million to consumers to settle charges that it shared sensitive data for advertising purposes after promising to keep the information private.
This marks the first time the agency has reached an agreement with a company to return money to consumers after their health data was allegedly compromised. The order will be subject to public comment for 30 days before the agency decides whether to finalize it.
If the order comes into effect, it will ban BetterHelp from sharing data from users (including those who accessed the company’s website or app without signing up for its services) with select third parties for ad targeting. The FTC alleges that BetterHelp shared users’ email addresses, IPs and health questionnaire responses with Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest. The agency said this allowed Facebook, for instance, to target similar users with BetterHelp ads, which helped to drive tens of thousands of paid users and millions of dollars in revenue to the counseling company.
The FTC claims BetterHelp didn’t receive explicit consent from users before sharing their health data, which it pledged to keep private except for limited uses, such as counseling purposes. In its complaint (), the agency also accused BetterHelp of not limiting the scope of how third-party companies could use the health data it shared with them.
“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,” FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection director Samuel Levine said in a statement. “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.”
The proposed order, which FTC commissioners approved unanimously, will require BetterHelp to, among other things, obtain explicit consent from users before sharing their data with some third parties for any reason. The company will need to establish privacy protocols to protect user data and delete personal and health information after a certain period of time. Moreover, BetterHelp will have to instruct the companies it allegedly shared user health and personal data with to wipe such information from their servers.
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