Facebook Tracking Cancer Sites For Advertising Purposes, Lawsuit Alleges

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Facebook Tracking Cancer Sites For Advertising Purposes, Lawsuit Alleges

By Kerry Flynn

Does Facebook think you have cancer? The social network has an unparalleled view of its users’ interests, in part because of the ubiquitous “like” button, which allows Facebook to track its 1.5 billion users around the web when they’re logged in, which is pretty much all the time.

That feature also allows Facebook to target advertising based on those interests with unnerving detail. That’s what the plaintiffs in a new class-action discovered when they started getting very specific ads addressing certain types of cancer after visiting websites like cancer.org, cancer.net, melanoma.org, shawneemission.org, barnesjewish.org, clevelandclinic.org and MDAnderson.org.

The case, filed last month in federal court in San Jose, California, alleges that Facebook is capturing medical information via online searches performed on those sites, and that that information was then used to target those users based on a condition, breaking the Federal Wiretap Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as well as several state privacy laws.

“Facebook is capturing users’ searches for medical information from medical websites without users ever knowing this sensitive data is being shared with Facebook, for marketing and other purposes,” Paul Kiesel, the lead attorney for the case, told International Business Times.

The suit has drawn the notice of some big privacy advocates, who say this case could put the whole ad targeting industry on trial, especially the use of health-related data. It’s a case that some privacy advocates have been “waiting for,” Deborah Peel, founder of nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights, said. “We’ll do everything we can to help promote it.”

Facebook said the company plans to dispute the claims and declared that the basis of the case is not valid. “This lawsuit is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” a Facebook representative told IBT.

Part of the reason privacy advocates say this suit is explosive is the allegation that medical data was transferred, a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. The HIPAA violation comes from capturing medical information without gaining the person’s permission. The websites Adventist, Barnes Jewish, Cleveland Clinic and MD Anderson are “covered entities” governed by HIPAA, the case claims.

“The new complaint is likely not going to get thrown out like the last ones. They have a HIPAA violation that could stick,” Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, a public interest research group, wrote in an email. For someone to pull this information, they must “express consent, and it can’t be passive consent.”

The lawsuit claims that Facebook places more than 225 million users into 154 medical categories for direct marketing. Facebook declined to comment on its ad categories or if these 154 medical categories exist.

Read full article and learn more about Social Media and Privacy Policy here.

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