Online therapy company BetterHelp has been ordered to pay $7.8m by the US government over the alleged release of sensitive user data to social media companies like Meta and Snapchat and banned from sharing the health data of consumers for advertising.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) imposed the amount on the California-based company for “partial refunds for customers” on Thursday and banned it from sharing health data, including sensitive information about mental health challenges.
This makes it the first time the FTC has taken action on a company to return funds to users whose private health data was compromised.
Users of the telehealth company from August 2017 through the end of 2020 may have had their personal health information shared with third parties, according to the FTC, citing its own complaint.
“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,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, 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,” Mr Levine said.
BetterHelp offers counselling that is aimed at specific groups such as teens and people in the LGBT+ community.
Before it begins to offer counselling, users are required to fill out a questionnaire that asks them for sensitive mental health information such as whether they have experienced depression or suicidal thoughts and are on any medications.
They are also required to provide their name, email address, birth date and other personal information.
But the company “used and revealed” data like email and IP addresses and health questionnaire information to Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest for advertising purposes, the FTC said.
The FTC noted that 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.
The federal agency said this move helped BetterHelp 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,” the FTC noted in a statement.
The company has also failed to place limits on how third parties could use the user health information, the agency said.
“The $7.8m 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,” it said.
BetterHelp did not immediately respond to The Independent’s request for comment.