Report: Facebook Sought Access to Medical Records to Target Pharma Ads

NEWS ANALYSIS: While Facebook continues to publicly apologize for massive user privacy breaches, an NBC news report says Facebook sent a physician to major U.S. hospitals seeking access to patient medical records.

Facebook Medical Record Quest

In a week when Facebook desperately needed good news, most of what broke about the social network was anything but. 

After a series of revelations about the vastness of the Cambridge Analytica data breach and acknowledgement that nearly all of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users have had their profile data scraped at one time or another, now comes a report that Facebook sent a doctor on a secret mission to obtain medical records from a number of major hospitals. 

According to the report published by CNBC, Facebook dispatched a physician to a number of major hospitals attempting to negotiate the release of patient medical records. The hospital would redact the names on those records, but that’s all. 

Facebook would then compare the remaining patient information with its enormous member profile archives to look for common lifestyle and demographic information. This potentially could have restored patient names to the medical records and allow Facebook to have access to their medical records. 

A statement by Facebook to CNBC, the company claimed that the data would be used strictly for research. But then news has just broken that Facebook has been pitching the ability to target potential users of medications to pharmaceutical companies for advertising. 

Meanwhile, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg told NBC’s Today Show that Facebook was deeply sorry for the data breaches and admitted that the company should have audited Cambridge Analytica after it asked the company not to use its data, but didn’t. Sandberg said that Facebook’s leadership was too idealistic in thinking that its data wouldn’t be misused. 

Initially, Sandberg denied that Facebook made its advertising money by selling access to its members using targeted data, claiming that what was really happening was that Facebook users were simply sharing the data with Facebook. 

However in a subsequent interview with NPR, Sandberg said that in reality Facebook made money by selling access to its membership, and she said it was just like the way radio and television stations made money from advertising. 

As Facebook was coping with its image, through interviews and by kicking Russia’s Internet Research Agency off of Facebook because its efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, new data revealed that China was doing the same thing. 

A report by the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology says that the Chinese government has been quietly using Facebook to gather user data so that it can send out directed propaganda in a series of ads and targeted pages. 

The report suggests that next week’s congressional hearings on the Cambridge Analytica breach might also be a good venue for discussing China’s use of Facebook, but it cautions that the hearings might not be entirely impartial. 

According to the ICIT report, members of the Senate Commerce Committee received $369,000 in campaign contributions from Facebook employees and from a Facebook political action committee, while members of the Senate Judiciary Committee received $235,000 from the same source. 

This might explain why Facebook is suddenly cleaning up its act in series of good works shortly before company executives are called before the senate committees to testify. For example in addition to limiting access to its data as was reported earlier this week, Facebook has announced new restrictions for political or issue advertising. 

According to an announcement posted by Rob Goldman, Facebook vice president of advertising, and Alex Mimel, vice president of local and pages, Facebook will now require verification of the people and organizations posting political and issue ads. 

This means that Facebook will supposedly have to know who is actually behind such a particular ad or issue page on Facebook. When the ad is displayed, it will be flagged as a political or issue ad with the name of the actual sponsor will be revealed in a “paid for by” tagline. 

Ad sponsors and administrators of what Facebook loosely calls large pages will be required to comply with requirement to reveal the true sponsors or they won’t be allowed post or advertise at all. 

Later on, Facebook says it plans to implement a feature called “view ads” that will let you see what ads a page is running, even if they’re not targeted at you. In June, Facebook says it will implement a publicly searchable archive of political ads. These steps are part of what Facebook is doing to fight fake news and inflammatory political ads based on fake news. 

While Facebook’s move to oust fake news, the Russia’s IRA and data breaches are all things that needed doing, the company has yet to explain why so much time passed long after each of these problems was known before it took action. While the moves have elicited somewhat self-serving apologies, the excuses that we’ve heard so far basically boil down to little more than “Oops, my bad. Let’s move on.” 

But one thing is readily apparent, even if Facebook’s executives can’t see it, and that’s the company’s total cluelessness when it comes to the privacy rights of its subscribers. How else can you explain a plan to reveal federally-protected medical information by sending a doctor out on a secret mission? 

But that’s not the only question. A number of privacy groups are charging that Facebook’s facial recognition feature in which it would identify a person by their photo in someone’s posts, is also a violation of privacy laws. 

You’d think that somewhere along the line Facebook would have wondered why Cambridge Analytica needed access to 87 million user profiles. But apparently privacy is so far from Facebook’s mind that they never troubled about this question.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...