Why You Should Be Wary Of Facebook’s Plans To Enter Health Care

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Facebook is looking at users’ health care information as the new frontier and plans to create illness-based communities and health apps, according to a Reuters exclusive report.

Details on the social network’s exact plans are scant, but sources told Reuters the company sees a foray into health care to boost user engagement on the site. Facebook is researching ideas, such as online communities centered around people suffering from the same maladies or with the same health concerns, and is considering preventive health care apps to help improve users’ lifestyles.

According to Reuters, the move was inspired by how people were using the site. Facebook product teams spotted a trend: People with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, used the site to hunt down advice from other users.

Facebook has pioneered several features that have made waves, occasionally dabbling in public health and spurring policy reform. Taiwan’s prime minister pushed for health policy reforms after Taiwanese medical professionals posted concerns about the country’s cripplingly overcrowded emergency rooms in the wake of several tsunamis and an earthquake in 2011. Facebook’s organ donor initiative, which allowed users to post their organ donor status on their profiles, prompted 40,000 new people to sign up for organ donation programs. Earlier this year, Facebook expanded its sexual orientation and gender identity options, including dozens of diverse options.

But Facebook’s history of mining consumer’s personal data for better ads or just to learn more about its users could become a problem when it comes to health issues. In the past, Facebook has admitted to using controversial tactics, such as digging through users statuses and one-on-one messages to tailor the ads it displays. The privacy law governing health data, the Health Insurance Portability And Accountability Act or HIPAA, is more stringent than those for consumer data, and prohibits practices that directly link a patient to details in his or her medical history without expressed consent. For example, Facebook would likely be barred from targeting ads to users based on their health ailments.

The growing trend to put more personal health information online has raised security concerns. Because electronic medical records and even just medical information posted online are easily transferred, the stakes are raised to make sure patient’s personal information stays confidential even if they’re seeking help online. That could be a problem Facebook would have to remedy before launching any health apps, which must meet HIPAA privacy requirements.

Facebook faced public backlash in June after revealing it conducted unauthorized psychological experiments on almost 700,000 users to see how they would respond to emotionally positive or negative posts. The social network apologized Thursday and vowed to make changes to its data manipulation practices. But the company still reserves the right to keep conducting experiments on users, which are common among social media companies and the tech industry overall. That could be problematic if Facebook does integrate health data into its site.

Facebook continues to fight consumer privacy concerns in the U.S. and internationally. Overseas, European regulators have repeatedly criticized Facebook — and Google — for voracious data collecting practices that can blur the line between privacy and convenience. Chief among Facebook’s concerns is a European Union high court ruling that could determine whether the social network illegally let the NSA spy on European users. As a result, Facebook and other tech companies could be face tougher privacy laws, like getting expressed permission to collect and store consumer data, if they want to do business in Europe.