Will Facebook’s data-scraping woes bleed into healthcare and pharma?

OPINION: Why the Cambridge Analytica scandal was actually a good thing for Facebook users
Facebook's latest scandal over consumer data misuse likely won't affect pharma day to day on the platform, but companies should continue privacy vigilance. (iStockphoto)

Another internet data scandal—this time Facebook and Cambridge Analytica—has consumers buzzing about the safety of their personal information. Will people become more nervous about sharing their healthcare data in its wake?

Probably not, said several industry experts interviewed by FiercePharma, although pharmas should still keep an eye on the controversy.

Cambridge Analytica's mishandling of data collected in apps spurred Congress to hold hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week. That app-oriented issue doesn’t apply to pharma companies, which generally don’t use Facebook apps to gather data. Drugmakers strictly use Facebook data to target consumers with one-way ads or content.

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Facebook did confirm last week that it had been in discussions with several hospitals and medical groups about sharing patient data for a research project, but the social media giant said the project never went beyond the planning phase.

Still, Zuckerberg’s high-profile appearance in Washington, D.C., has consumers, companies and lawmakers talking about data, privacy and Facebook once again, so pharma companies should take note and be ready to answer any questions that do come their way.

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“How does this issue affect pharma companies advertising on Facebook? The one-line answer is it doesn’t really affect them," said Brad Einarsen, senior director, social media at Klick Health. "Pharma companies advertising on Facebook are inside of the Facebook ecosystem, and they use the tool that Facebook provides to target their ads. That means that most pharma companies never collect data directly, and so it’s business as usual.”

Einarsen's Klick colleague Dori Cappola, SVP of media, agreed that the new controversy doesn’t affect day-to-day business for pharma on Facebook, but what it has “brought to light for the larger population is the necessity and the need … to understand that when you put something out there, it’s in your best interest to be educated and understand what you’re putting out there and who has access to it.”

During this latest Facebook crisis, people threatened to quit the app or to stop sharing data with Facebook or brands; the search term "Delete Facebook" hit a 5-year high on Google in late March, according to Google Trends. But those kinds of threats arose in the aftermath of other well-publicized data hacks or scandals, and few people followed through.

High-profile dropouts this time included Apple co-founder and former exec Steve Wozniak and actor Will Ferrell. Elon Musk pulled Tesla and SpaceX home pages, too. But overall dropoffs during the height of the crisis and during Zuckerberg's testimony only numbered in the single-digit thousands.

“Not a lot of behaviors have changed, and in fact we’ve seen social media growth explode in spite of some of these controversies,” said Andrew Grojean, manager of innovation at Intouch Solutions. “What I do think will happen is that consumers may start to be more cognizant of their own privacy. That’s a good thing because that means the data they’re giving to brands is more intentional and the brands that are using that data as stewards of that data can be more intentional in how they use it."

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A recent report in the New York Times about Cambridge Analytica's improper Facebook data harvest agreed: “[F]or the first time, many privacy experts think users will be more willing to put up with a little more inconvenience in return for a lot more privacy.”

What might happen, said Michael Weintraub, CEO of pharma and healthcare addressable ad platform Medicx, is that pharma companies may “hit the pause button temporarily” while they wait to see what, if any, action comes out of Congress and what, if any, steps Facebook takes.

He agreed that companies and consumers may take a renewed look at security and privacy. In fact, the Facebook scandal has stirred talk about a new rule, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that will go into effect in Europe on May 25. Those rules give Europeans more control over their personal data; many will notice more overt consent requests and privacy notices. Privacy pundits, and even tech companies themselves, are pointing to GDPR as a potential guide for the U.S.

“I think many of us in pharma wanting to use data, whether it’s deidentified or opt-in, are going to have to take the approach we’ve taken, which is more of a privacy-by-design,” Weintraub said. “Every concept, every piece of engineering, from the tech side or otherwise, is going to have to think through and cover off everything to ensure what we do is sealed with patient privacy.”