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On Privacy, Facebook & Healthcare

Recently, I wrote about how Facebook’s policies could limit its utility for healthprivacy.jpeg communications purposes because it requires that users identify themselves.  Now, I’m highlighting another concern: how Facebook uses data regarding users' purchases to monetize its activities.  

The advocacy group has launched a Facebook-based advertising campaign and petition calling upon the company to discontinue its new advertising platform, Beacon.   According to Facebook, movie purchasing Website Fandango is participating in Beacon.  In a press release the company stated:  


“Fandango, the nation’s leading moviegoer destination, is using Beacon so when Facebook users purchase a movie ticket on, they can share their movie plans with their friends on Facebook. Consumers gain a new way to tell their friends about their movie tastes, while Fandango is able to gain greater social distribution on Facebook.”

At issue is the fact that unlike other advertising initiatives based on Facebook users are automatically “opted-in” to use the service. charges that Facebook is violating users’ privacy because it is broadcasting information about their purchases to others without their explicit permission.  MoveOn says:

“Facebook users across the nation are outraged that the books, movies and gifts they buy privately on other sites are being displayed without permission to lots of people. Facebook needs to reverse this massive privacy breach.”

In Facebook’s defense, the company says that information about users’ purchases is only shared with a “trusted network of friends.”  However, given that people have varying degrees of technology ability, I am quite certain that some will not realize they are sharing information or understand how to opt out.

In Health Privacy Is Serious Business

This flap has got me thinking about why Facebook’s Beacon moves the social network into dangerous territory when it comes to health content.  For example, what if a Facebook member with bipolar disorder purchases a book about this condition on  Heres’s the catch: no one in their immediate network knows that they have this condition and the user does not want to share this information.  All of a sudden, because of Beacon, everyone knows.  

Take another example.  Someone has just been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease.  They go online to purchase medications.  The online retailer is a participant in the Beacon program.  Again, now their close friends possess sensitive information about their health status and can share it with others.  

While these examples may seem far-fetched, they are important thought experiments to engage in.  There are a raft of health regulations protecting patient privacy on the books in the United States and elsewhere.  In health, companies only have one chance to get it right.  If they mess up, they will be tarred with a very black brush.  As online media companies look for ways to monetize their content in health, they have a responsibility to understand the environment and the risks associated with operating in this industry.

It will be interesting to see how the Beacon flap is resolved.  

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