It’s no secret that Facebook tracks users’ friendships and monitors their interests for advertising placement – but now sources tell Reuters the social networking site is also curious about subscribers’ health information.
Three people familiar with discussions underway at the social media giant told Reuters that the company is interested in expanding into healthcare, and has been meeting with medical providers and experts.
As the plans are in development, the individuals requested anonymity but said that Facebook “is setting up a research and development unit to test new health app…[for] support communities…[and] new preventative care applications that would help people improve their lifestyles.”
Last year, for example, Facebook’s geodata was used in a Boston Children’s Hospital study to analyze obesity in various communities. The study, published in the PLOS One journal, showed that in cities or neighborhoods where a higher percentage of people listed healthy, active interests on Facebook – users may have “liked” activities such as running or biking – the lower that area’s obesity rate turned out to be. A large percentage of Facebook users with television-related interests, meanwhile, tended to have higher rates of obesity.
“Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level,” said the study team. “[T]his kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behavior change, and assess the success of those campaigns.”
However, the prospect of having a third party like Facebook tracking important details about a person’s health – or even the questions a person might seek answers to online – immediately raises questions about privacy and how medical information will be protected, if at all.
In the US, there is no universal information privacy law. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is a disclosure regulation law for patients, but it is limited to healthcare providers, health plans, or healthcare clearinghouses. It does not apply to a cell phone app or genetic testing service, and therefore won’t apply to social media.
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