By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law and Hartley Brooks, Law Clerk, The Health Law Firm
Facebook agreed to the largest-ever data privacy settlement in December 2022. The $725 million settlement comes after nearly five years of litigation and contentious negotiations.
The class action lawsuit revolved around allegations that Facebook had been sharing user data with third parties without the users’ consent or knowledge. The case stemmed from the 2016 investigation into the Facebook election scandal.
In that scandal, Facebook was accused of selling user data to a political consulting firm that then used the data to successfully campaign on Facebook’s platform. Facebook did not accept any liability or admit to any wrongdoing in the class action settlement.
Facebook has also more recently been accused of harvesting personal medical data from non-Facebook sites. In June 2022, Facebook allegedly deployed a tracking technology called the “Meta Pixel” to hospitals and medical providers.
This “Meta Pixel” is an embedded code that allegedly sent a packet of information to Facebook whenever a patient scheduled an appointment online. This packet allegedly included IP addresses, names, reasons for visits, prescribed medication and dosage, allergic reactions, details about upcoming appointments, and even patient answers to questions on intake forms, such as sexual orientation.
The class action alleged that the “Meta Pixel” gathered information without first obtaining user consent, which could be a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Regulation. HIPAA and its implementing regulations, including the Privacy Regulation and the Security Regulation, prohibit healthcare providers from sharing patient information with third parties unless the patient explicitly consents in advance.
An experiment was conducted testing websites of America’s top 100 hospitals that reportedly found that 33 of these hospitals had the “Meta Pixel” installed as of June 15, 2022. It was even found in some password-protected patient portals, allowing access to more intimate patient healthcare information. The hospitals that were found with the tracking technology encoded in its website have since started removing them. Click here to read more about the experiment.
This type of data privacy breach is a massive concern in our increasingly technology-reliant world, especially in healthcare. Using such tracking technology can damage patients’ trust in their healthcare providers due to the move toward a more digitized cloud-based healthcare system. The Facebook settlement for the class consisting of all Facebook users from May 2007 to December 2022 is a step toward solidifying online privacy rights and that the invasion or patient privacy is injury enough to be redressed in federal court.
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Atkins, Dorothy. “Facebook Users’ Attys Seek $95M in $725M Meta Privacy Deal.” Law360. (22 June 2023). https://www.law360.com/health/articles/1691831?nl_pk=0cbd4c0b-c6c8-416a-9e67-b4affa63b102&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=health&utm_content=2023-06-23&nlsidx=1&nlaidx=10
Feathers, Todd, Simon Fondrie-Teitler, Angie Waller, and Surya Mattu. “Facebook is Receiving Sensitive Medical Information from Hospital Websites.” The Markup. (20 May 2023). https://themarkup.org/pixel-hunt/2022/06/16/facebook-is-receiving-sensitive-medical-information-from-hospital-websites
McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk. “Lawsuit: Facebook is Collecting Patient Data of ‘Millions’.” Gov Info Security. (21 June 2022). Million Facebook User Data Privacy Class Action Settlement.” Open Class Actions. (25 August 2023). https://openclassactions.com/settlement_facebook_user_privacy.php
About the Authors: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Hartley Brooks is a law clerk with the health law firm. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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