Congress Begins to Look at Issue of Facebook Group Privacy—in the Medical Context

Feb. 21, 2019
Congress has stepped into an issue involving Facebook groups and cancer patients, according to media reports

The U.S. Congress has stepped into an issue involving Facebook groups and cancer patients, according to media reports. As Catalin Cimpanu wrote in an article published in the online publication ZDNet on Feb. 19, “Members of the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today demanding answers from the exec and its staff about the company's most recent privacy scandal."

The 43-page grievance accuses Facebook of misleading users about the privacy of its "closed" groups. As Cimpanu wrote in ZDNet, “The complaint is connected to a privacy issue that Facebook dealt with over the summer. According to a CNBC report at the time, the leader of a health-centric Facebook group discovered that a Chrome extension for marketers allowed advertisers to collect the names and emails of users who joined Facebook "closed" groups, including the details of a group she organized for women with BRCA gene mutations.”

The moderator of that closed Facebook group, Cimpanu wrote, “argued that the company had failed or misled users into believing that ‘closed’ groups are private, but in reality allowed external entities access to sensitive information. She said that in many health groups, members share deeply personal health information, such as details about past diseases, disorders, sexual history, and more.” The issue that the Facebook group moderator has argued that, while for most public and even closed groups, such concerns wouldn’t have been an issue, members of health-centric “closed groups, are wouldn't have been a big problem, she argued that members of health-centric "closed" groups are actively trying to conceal their affiliation with medical issues that could lead to harassment and discrimination.

And as Emily Birnbaum wrote in an article in The Hill online also on Feb. 9, “In a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint released publicly on Tuesday, the group alleges that Facebook prompts its users to join online medical support groups under the guise that they are "private" – but does not make clear that users could expose their health data when they join those groups.” And Birnbaum quoted Fred Trotter, a security researcher and one of the complainants, as saying that "I think the highest-level deception is that they call [these medical support groups] safe.” As Birnbaum wrote, “He pointed out that Facebook executives, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, have touted the medical support groups as an opportunity for patients to support one another, while failing to disclose that the group members' data could be mined for ad targeting and harassment.” And she noted that “House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs the commerce subcommittee, in response to the FTC complaint, requested a staff briefing from Facebook. Pallone and Schakowsky in a letter to Zuckerberg wrote that the social network ‘potentially misled Facebook users’ into sharing personal health information, raising "concerns about Facebook's privacy policies and practices.”

The Hill’s report quoted a Facebook spokesperson as saying in a statement to that publication that the company looks forward to “briefing the committee about how these products work. It’s intentionally clear to people that when they join any group on Facebook, other members of that group can see that they are a part of that community, and can see the posts they choose to share with that community,” the spokesperson said in that statement to The Hill. The lawmakers' request for a briefing comes as lawmakers gear up to put together a federal privacy bill, an endeavor that has garnered interest from members of both political parties.

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