Facebook Wants Your Medical Data, but Isn’t Legally Obligated to Protect It

The company promises its Preventive Health tool is private. Should users trust it?

Emily Mullin
OneZero
Published in
6 min readJan 3, 2020

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Photo: NeONBRAND/Unsplash

Using information I handed over 14 years ago, Facebook just recommended that I get a flu shot, a cholesterol test, a blood pressure test, and a Pap smear.

The recommendations are part of Facebook’s new tool, called Preventive Health, which the company first announced in October. Over the past few weeks, many users have started seeing the tool in their feeds for the first time. (For now, the tool is only available to U.S. users.) The health recommendations are based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Cancer Society, and American Heart Association, which Facebook partnered with to develop the tool. Given my demographic, Facebook says I should get a Pap test and HPV test every five years.

Health information shared in apps, posted on social media, or collected by fitness trackers isn’t legally protected in the same way hospital and medical records are.

The tool allows users to mark each recommendation as done, set a reminder when they’re due for a checkup, and find locations where they can get screened. And that’s where the new tool feels a bit invasive. Data you share in the tool isn’t protected in the same way your health records at a doctor’s office are, which raises a lot of questions. Once you enter this information, what will Facebook do with it? How will the data be stored, and for how long? Who will see it?

Preventive Health represents a new foray into personal health for Facebook, which will need to answer these questions if it expects users to divulge sensitive health information. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last year found that 60% of Americans don’t trust Facebook to protect their personal data. Other tech giants are venturing into the health space, too, with Google recently acquiring Fitbit and Amazon launching a virtual medical service for its employees.

Facebook assures users that the information they disclose in the health tool won’t be shared with other…

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Emily Mullin
OneZero

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.