FTC Fines Therapy App $7.8 Million Over Privacy

In a continuing privacy crackdown, the Federal Trade Commission is fining the app BetterHelp $7.8 million for allegedly sharing sensitive information about users' mental health with outside companies for ad purposes.

BetterHelp, which offers online counseling to app users who pay up to $90 a week, promised to keep consumers' information confidential, according to the FTC.

Those promises were not kept, the FTC said in a complaint unveiled Thursday.

“To capitalize on ... consumers’ health information, respondent handed it over to numerous third-party advertising platforms, including Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Criteo, often permitting these companies to use the information for their own research and product development as well,” the FTC alleged.

BetterHelp has been under scrutiny over its data practices since at least 2020, when Jezebel reported that the app was sharing supposedly anonymized data for analytics.

The following year, Consumer Reports reported that mental health apps BetterHelp were sharing data with outside companies.

And last June, a trio of senators expressed concerns over privacy to the CEO of BetterHelp.

“Unfortunately, it appears possible that the policies used by your company and similar mental health platforms allow third-party Big Tech firms and data brokers, who have shown remarkably little interest in protecting vulnerable consumers and users, to access and use highly confidential personal and medical information,” Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) wrote at the time.

The FTC's complaint against the therapy app comes one month after the agency said it was fining GoodRx $1.5 million for allegedly sharing users' health data for advertising purposes.

When the agency unveiled that case, Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated that the agency was “serving notice that it will use all of its legal authority to protect American consumers’ sensitive data from misuse and illegal exploitation.”

The FTC's complaint against BetterHelp includes specific examples of the app's disclosures to third parties including Facebook.

For instance, between November of 2018 and March of 2020, BetterHelp allegedly disclosed to Facebook that more than 1.5 million of BetterHelp's visitors and users were previously in therapy, in order to retarget those people with ads. The information came from questionnaires completed by users and visitors to BetterHelp.

In addition to the fine, the settlement agreement requires BetterHelp to avoid sharing consumers’ health data for advertising or sharing their personal information for re-targeting.

The settlement must still be approved by a judge.

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