Facebook's User Data Enables Drug Companies to Target People with Health Conditions

This means advertisements that appear on someone's computer could disclose their health condition to others without their consent.
Derya Ozdemir

A recent report from The Markup's Citizen Browser project has shown Facebook's extensive data gathering allows Big Pharma to exploit sensitive information relating to illnesses for targeted ads.

It's no secret that Facebook's interest-based ad targeting is commonly used across many industries; however, when it comes to selling medical treatments, it has sparked concerns among health privacy researchers. Despite the fact that the social media giant prohibits the use of "sensitive health information", it appeals to pharmaceutical firms seeking to sell drugs to potential customers who have found creative solutions to work around these rules.

To see the extent of these advertisements, The Markup, a nonprofit organization that focuses on data-driven journalism to investigate ethics and the effect of tech on society, used a custom web browser to analyze what ads Facebook delivered to 1,200 users and the reason behind them.

They discovered dozens of ads for prescription pharmaceuticals targeted at people with “interests” in subjects such as “bourbon” and “oxygen", according to user behavior such as participating in patient support groups and more. 

Turns out, Big Pharma often used illness "awareness" as a proxy for sensitive health information. For example, Zejula, a GlaxoSmithKline drug used to treat advanced ovarian cancer, was targeted at Facebook users who expressed an interest in "cancer awareness."

Novartis used “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month” to sell Piqray, a breast cancer pill, to users, while AstraZeneca targeted users with advertisements for Brilinta, a blood thinner, depending on whether Facebook deemed a user interested in “stroke awareness.”

The Markup states that the potential audience size for such ads can be huge, as Facebook's ad-buying system states almost 203 million people have shown an interest in cancer awareness.

Is this illegal?

Well, no. Facebook is not engaging in any criminal activity here, as shown by the Ninth Circuit's decision in 2018 to uphold a decision to dismiss a privacy claim against Facebook involving the collection of personal medical data. The judges ruled in favor of Facebook, stating that such data alone “cannot, in and of itself, reveal details of an individual’s health status or medical history.”

Facebook spokesperson Tom Channick told The Markup that Facebook doesn’t use "medical history to inform the interest categories we make available to advertisers," and instead, "people are placed into interest categories based on their activity on Facebook, including the pages they like or the ads they click on."

However, this demonstrates the degree of which how far Facebook's data storing extends and how it's able to monetize that data, even if it pertains to sensitive subjects such as health conditions. Furthermore, it should also be noted that advertisements that appear on someone's computer could disclose sensitive information about their health to others without their consent.

Facebook's questionable relationship regarding ads goes way back: The social media giant had been accused of harvesting its users' biometric data and also sued for allegedly watching Instagram users through their phone cameras. Most recently, WhatsApp made data sharing with its parent company Facebook mandatory via an in-app notice, notifying users that it has changed its terms of service and privacy policy. 

When we look at the big picture, however, we also see that Apple has launched its App Tracking Transparency feature with iOS 14.5, allowing customers to opt-out of being tracked. Unsurprisingly, Facebook has strongly opposed Apple's new privacy regulations, claiming that removing tracking will harm small businesses.

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