A scandal bigger than Cambridge Analytica?  Facebook collected patient health data from hospital websites

Two class-action lawsuits accuse Facebook parent company Meta and major US hospitals of violating privacy laws. This was supposed to happen through a tracking tool that sent information about the health status of patients to the social network operator, reports The Verge magazine.

The lawsuits were filed in California court in June and July and focus on the Meta Pixel tracker. This can be installed on websites to provide analytics data about Facebook and Instagram ads. Among other things, it collects information about how people click and enter information on these websites.

Spying on patients

The whole case broke out after the American non-profit organization The Markup published the results of its investigation in early June. It found that 33 of the top 100 hospitals in the United States use the Meta Pixel on their websites. In seven hospitals, it was even installed in a non-public section – on password-protected patient portals.

The investigation showed that the tool sends Facebook information about patients’ health status, scheduled doctor visits and drug allergies. The lawsuits allege that Facebook used the data obtained as part of its advertising system to target advertisements for drugs and treatments.

In the first lawsuit, the patient alleges that her health information was sent using the Meta Pixel tool from the patient portals of UC San Francisco and Dignity Health Hospital (those healthcare facilities are also being sued). The patient was then shown advertisements focused on the heart and knee diseases she suffers from.

A second lawsuit, filed by a patient at MedStar Health System in Baltimore, Maryland, alleges that at least 664 health care providers sent health data via Meta Pixel technology.

What will the legal battle revolve around?

Under the Personal Data Protection Act, healthcare organizations need patient consent to share personal data. Meta defends itself by saying it requires Meta Pixel users to have the right to share data and that it filters out sensitive health data. Instead, the lawsuits allege that Meta knowingly failed to follow those policies, and that it placed the Pixel on healthcare facilities’ websites even though it knew it would collect personal health information.

In order for claims to be forwarded, they must first be approved by the court as collective. If any of these are successful, they could result in compensation for all users whose health care providers used the said tracking technology.

At this time, there is no guarantee that the lawsuits filed will gain class action status. If successful, the lawsuit could be very costly for Meta, as the plaintiffs are seeking damages on behalf of all Facebook users whose healthcare providers implemented the Pixel, which could include millions of people.

Meta has come under fire in the past for its policies on collecting and processing personal data. Currently, allegedly is working to create an advertising system that does not rely on users’ personal data. According to Business Insider the company refused to comment in any way on the filed lawsuits.

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