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  • Writer's pictureBrighton Counselling

Safeguarding Confidentiality in Psychotherapy: The Pitfalls of Big Tech Platforms

Updated: Feb 3

In recent years, the landscape of mental health services has witnessed a surge in online therapy platforms, with BetterHelp claiming to be at the forefront as the "world's largest therapy platform" - already claiming in excess of 2 million users. However, it is clear that recent developments raise concerns about entrusting sensitive and confidential therapeutic work to big tech.

BetterHelp, established in 2013 and often hailed as a trailblaser in online therapy, has come under scrutiny from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for compromising users' privacy. The FTC exposed BetterHelp's practice of sharing sensitive user data with Facebook which included emails, IP addresses, and responses to health questionnaires. The intention behind this data exchange was to enable targeted advertisements for BetterHelp, but this was a clear violation of the platform's assurances to users that their personal information would only ever be used for limited purposes - specifically for providing counselling services.

The FTC's investigation revealed that BetterHelp's Facebook campaign not only breached privacy agreements but also resulted in the BetterHelp's acquisition of tens of thousands of new paying users and generated millions of dollars in revenue. As a consequence, the FTC imposed a $7.8 million fine on BetterHelp, emphasising the severity of mishandling users' private health data. This landmark decision marked the first instance of the FTC penalising a mental health company for such privacy breaches.

This incident wasn't the first time BetterHelp has faced criticism for questionable data practices. A 2020 investigation exposed the platform for sharing metadata, albeit not the content, of therapy sessions with Facebook. This data exchange allowed Facebook to glean information about users' therapy habits, such as the time of day they engaged in therapy, their approximate location, and the duration of their interactions on the BetterHelp app.

In light of these revelations, it feels more important than ever that both psychotherapists and clients carefully consider the use of such big tech platforms for the sensitive work of therapy. The breach of confidentiality observed in the BetterHelp case underscores the potential risks associated with entrusting therapeutic information to companies that prioritise profit over privacy. As professionals committed to safeguarding the well-being of our clients, we have a duty to ensure that the platforms we use adhere to the highest standards of confidentiality, offering a secure and ethically sound environment for the therapeutic process.

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