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    Published on April 14, 2023 last updated on April 14, 2023

    FTC says online counseling service BetterHelp broke its privacy promises

    The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says online counseling company BetterHelp collected sensitive customer data for years with promises of anonymity, but secretly shared that data with social networking giants for targeted advertising campaigns.

    According to the FTC, the company shared email addresses, IP addresses and certain information provided by users during the sign-up process for the service with partners such as Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo and Pinterest. 

    BetterHelp, based in Mountain View, California, is a mental health care company that provides its services online directly to consumers. BetterHelp provides its counseling and therapy services to clients through web-based interactions as well as phone and text communications.

    The company's service enrollment process promises consumers that it will not use or disclose their personal health data except for limited purposes. 

    The FTC also claims the company gave customer service agents fake scripts to try to reassure users that it did not share personally identifiable information or personal health information after a February 2020 Jezebel report exposed some of its practices.

    The FTC accuses BetterHelp of misleading customers by placing a HIPAA seal on its website when no government agency or other third party had reviewed their information practices for HIPAA compliance.

       "BetterHelp betrayed consumers' most personal health information for profit," said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

    BetterHelp used customers' emails and the fact that they had previously undergone therapy to ask Facebook to identify similar consumers and target them with ads, enabling it to attract tens of thousands of new paying users and millions of dollars in revenue.

    In addition, the FTC announced that BetterHelp agreed to pay $7.8 million to settle the dispute. However, BetterHelp rejected the FTC's charges and insisted that the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing. 

    BetterHelp added that the behavior for which it was sanctioned is an industry standard. 

    "We understand the FTC's desire to set new precedents in consumer marketing, and we are pleased to settle this case with the agency," BetterHelp said.

    It also states that it never shared information such as "member names or clinical data from therapy sessions with advertisers, publishers, social media platforms or any similar third parties."

    If the FTC's order is enforced, the $7.8 million will be paid to customers who signed up for the service between August 1, 2017 and December 31, 2020.

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    avatar Melissa Walehiane

    Melissa Walehiane

    Content writer at Didomi