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Report says Facebook’s creepy data collection lets Big Pharma target your illness

Published May 8th, 2021 1:36PM EDT
Facebook User Tracking
Image: Urupong/Adobe

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Facebook is at the center of two different privacy issues that have the same thing in common: Facebook appears to want unchecked access to your information. Facebook wants to collect more user data from WhatsApp users, and it’s practically forcing them to accept a controversial privacy policy change that has received plenty of criticism so far this year. Facebook also wants continued access to user data from iPhone and iPad, where Apple implemented a couple of features that help improve user privacy. New app privacy labels only inform users of the terrifying amount of data that apps like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp can collect. Then, the new app tracking transparency feature lets users block Facebook from tracking them across other apps.

A brand new report reinforces the idea that Facebook can gather a treasure trove of user information and turn it into lucrative personalized ads, even if the transaction involves highly sensitive health data. Big Pharma has been able to target people suffering from various illnesses with ads promoting corresponding drugs even though Facebook doesn’t offer advertisers the ability to explicitly identify health conditions.

Analyzing data from its Citizen Browser project, The Markup found that Big Pharma companies use drug ads on Facebook aimed at users with interest in topics related to a specific illness. “Awareness” of a disease is also a proxy for illness in targeting campaigns, the report notes.

The Markup details the various drugs advertised on Facebook based on illness-related data. Here are some examples of Facebook interests and the corresponding medications and health conditions they’re supposed to treat.

“Cancer awareness” — Zejula (GlaxoSmithKline) for advanced ovarian cancer
  • “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month” — Piqray (Novartis) for cancer
  • “Diabetes mellitus awareness” or “Diabetes mellitus type 2 awareness” — several unspecified drugs
  • “Stroke awareness” — Brilinta (AstraZeneca)
  • “Multiple sclerosis awareness” — Mayzent and Kesimpta (Novartis)
  • “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease awareness” — Trelegy (GSK)
  • interest in the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance; interest in therapy; interest in National Alliance on Mental Illness — Latuda (Sunovion)
  • interest in cigarettes or “oxygen” — Anoro (GSK) for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • interest in the “international classification of headache disorders” — Nurtec (Biohaven Pharmaceuticals) for migraines
  • interest in the chemical industry, Corona beer, and bourbon — Keytruda (Merck) for cancer
  • interest in “genetic disorder” — Syprine (Bausch Health) for Wilson’s disease

A Facebook spokesperson explained to The Markup that Facebook doesn’t use “medical history to inform the interest categories we make available to advertisers.” Facebook’s Tom Channick told The Markup that instead, “people are placed into interest categories based on their activity on Facebook, including the pages they like or the ads they click on.”

While Facebook might not be doing anything illegal here, these examples further prove that Facebook collects more data than many people realize and they use it in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Needless to say, Facebook is able to monetize this data even if it means targeting extremely sensitive subjects like health conditions.

Facebook ran ad campaigns this year explaining that personalized ads can help small businesses, and that’s why users should let Facebook track them online across apps and services. That campaign obviously did not address creepy ad practices that allow companies to target a person’s health conditions, or what personalized ads mean for big businesses like pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The report explains there are massive privacy implications for these practices. Even if the Big Pharma companies do not know the identity of the people they’re targeting, the ads that appear on someone’s computer might expose information about a person’s health conditions to others. The Markup’s report is worth a read in full, and it’s available at this link.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.