Can Facebook Place Itself At The Center of Health Data Collection?

This is the tale of a quiet effort by Facebook to take over (more of) our lives, in this case by sliding laterally into the healthcare business and collecting data on our medical habits.

What I’m about to share draws on a story appearing in The Atlantic laying out how Facebook might be able to leverage harmless-seeming preventive care reminders to re-institute its more aggressive plans for our health data.

As some readers will recall, in 2018, Facebook kicked off a project intended to combine its user information with hospital-patient data to improve patient outcomes. The project, which was spearheaded by a mysterious-sounding Facebook group known as Building 8, would eventually create technology offering providers updates on, among other things, social determinants of health.

Theoretically, this could have been cool. What companies knows better than Facebook how developed your friend network and support groups are?

However, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted in March of that year, putting Facebook at the center of a controversial data-gathering effort designed for political gain, concerns about the social media giant’s data use exploded. In the process, Facebook closed the Building 8 group and pulled back its healthcare plans.

Since then, notes writer Sidney Fussell, Facebook has dusted itself off and gotten back into the fray. This time, it’s making a more subtle play which, if Fussell is right, could allow Facebook to insinuate itself into consumer healthcare and possibly back into the healthcare data business at large. (By the way, not to be outdone, Amazon is also sneaking into the business of consumer health data, just in the UK rather than the US.)

The new offering, Facebook Preventive Health, is available as an opt-in feature for some U.S. consumers using the Facebook mobile app. The feature sends users checkup reminders to users based on their age and gender. These include information on nearby sites for flu shots, cancer screenings and blood pressure tests. Also, as of last October, the social media giant planned to begin providing information on free clinics in the user’s area.

Facebook told The Atlantic that HIPAA doesn’t apply to the activities the Preventive Health feature, a claim other tech giants have also made. And as Fussell points out, the authors of HIPAA didn’t anticipate that tech companies would eventually play a major role in health data collection and management. In fact, as my colleague Andy Oram notes, the distinctions we make between health data and non-health data and the need for consent for use of private health data may be meaningless going forward.

The truth is that even if Facebook Preventive Health itself remains relatively benign, it could be on a path towards health data domination. If it makes healthcare functions easy and convenient (and what’s more convenient than handling health transactions on a platform you access 50 times day?) it could become the center of gravity for U.S. health data, if not the world’s.

The truth is, it may already be inevitable that one of the titans of Silicon Valley will eventually “own” access to most health data. If that’s true, it’s down to a question of which horse you want to ride.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.