Facebook would like your health data

Social media giant reportedly eyeing new healthcare products; privacy questions remain
By Mike Miliard
11:07 AM
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Add Facebook to the list of Silicon Valley technology companies looking for ways to make personal health data a new part of their growth strategy. Like Apple and Google, the social network is said to be developing wellness apps, as well as health discussion groups for its 1.3 billion users.

[See also: Facebook users balk at sharing PHI]

A request for comment to its Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters was not immediately returned, but Reuters has reported that "three people familiar with the matter" say Facebook is eyeing new online "support communities" meant to connect users with specific health conditions and allow them to compare notes.

Another development team is said to be working on "preventative care" apps that would help users work toward developing more health lifestyles, according to the article.

[See also: Facebook app to help track how viruses spread]

Facebook has been meeting with "medical industry experts and entrepreneurs, and is setting up a research and development unit to test new health apps," Reuters reports – adding that the company is still in the "idea-gathering stage."

Interestingly – especially as healthcare as a whole grapples with tools and strategies to better engage patients with their care – the article says one of Facebook's main motivations for this new health-centric strategy is that it sees it as a way to "increase engagement with the site."

(Facebook could be facing a steep drop-off in its customer base in the coming years, some researchers have predicted.)

As with anything regarding Facebook, there are many questions that would have to be answered about the privacy implications of initiatives like these.

The site's livelihood depends on selling user data to advertisers, after all. Even though Facebook has recently changed its policy that accounts must be set up using real names, even with an alias, users discussing sensitive health data "would need anonymity and an assurance that their data and comments wouldn't be shared with their online contacts, advertisers, or pharmaceutical companies," the Reuters report points out.

On social media, the response to this news has been mixed.

"Not sure I like this," wrote one user on Twitter. "FB can't be all things."

"Facebook is moving into healthcare," tweeted another. "Run for the hills."

"I assume a Facebook-run health care service would periodically rearrange your body without asking," joked a third, slyly referencing Facebook's notoriously evolving privacy policy.

Their skepticism isn't unfounded. As this Think Progress report puts it, "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."

Facebook has repeatedly "admitted to using controversial tactics, such as digging through users' statuses and one-on-one messages to tailor the ads it displays," the story reminds us.

With HIPAA's health data protections much more robust than those for consumer data, Facebook would be swimming in far different waters than it's used to.

As an example of the social network's missteps when it comes to personal health, ThinkProgress points to the psychological experiments – performed unknowingly on some 700,000 Facebook users – meant to gauge their reactions to posts with positive and negative connotations

On Oct. 2, Facebook offered a mea culpa, of sorts, for that research.

"Although this subject matter was important to research, we were unprepared for the reaction the paper received when it was published and have taken to heart the comments and criticism," wrote Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. "It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently."

He added: "We’re committed to doing research to make Facebook better, but we want to do it in the most responsible way."

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