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E&C Leaders Demand Briefing from Facebook on Exposure of Users’ Personal Health Information in Closed Groups

February 19, 2019
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Energy and Commerce Committee leaders today wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding a briefing from the company following a troubling consumer complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission that personal health information of certain Facebook users who were participating in “closed” groups may have been exposed, leading to harassment and a risk of discrimination.  According to the complaint, users of these groups shared deeply personal health information, such as information about substance use disorders, about the challenges of parenting transgender children, HIV status, and past history of sexual assault.

The request was made today to Zuckerberg by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

“Despite the indications that the groups were private and anonymous, people and companies who should not have been admitted to these groups gained access to them and to lists of group members,” Pallone and Schakowsky wrote.  “People used the member lists and other information from these groups to target and harass members of the groups.  Insurance companies may have used information from these private groups to make decisions about insurance offerings for group members.”

According to the consumer complaint, Facebook’s algorithms used personal information it collected from Facebook users to suggest and even solicit members of online support groups for a variety of medical conditions. 

“This consumer complaint raises a number of concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies and practices,” the Committee leaders continued.  “Facebook’s systems lack transparency as to how they are able to gather personal information and synthesize that information into suggestions of relevant medical condition support groups.  Labeling these groups as closed or anonymous potentially misled Facebook users into joining these groups and revealing more personal information than they otherwise would have.  And Facebook may have failed to properly notify group members that their personal health information may have been accessed by health insurance companies and online bullies, among others.”

The Committee leaders requested a briefing from Facebook by March 1, 2019.

To read the letter, click HERE