The Health Dangers of Facebook Posts
Status updaters beware: The info you post might be turned against you.
Diagnosed with depression, Blanchard had gone on disability leave. Her doctor, she says, had actually recommended trips and nights out to help overcome her crisis. But her insurer, Manulife, saw it differently after checking her Facebook page—they used what they found as justification to hire a private investigator to follow and film her, says Blanchard’s lawyer, Tom Lavin. He says Manulife gave the materials to a psychiatrist who decided Blanchard was healthy enough to work and should no longer receive benefits. Blanchard is back on the job and has filed suit against Manulife and IBM; her trial is pending.
It’s a shocking practice and not necessarily rare. “I expect that insurance companies comb social sites all the time,” says Phil Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s easy for them to misinterpret what’s there, but they could use it to deny claims anyway.”
The lesson: Be careful about revealing health woes online. “People think companies can’t use Facebook this way. But courts have said they can, as long as you shared the information with others online,” Malone says. In a 2008 case involving two teens with eating disorders, a judge said the girls’ families had to turn over online posts they’d shared with others as evidence in a dispute with their insurer over whether their issues were “biological” (and thus covered) or emotional (not covered). And it’s not only your insurance that’s at risk: Half of employers admit to screening job candidates via social networking sites, a CareerBuilder survey reveals. Because many of us are “at-will” employees, we can be fired without legal recourse for almost any reason, including posting about drinking or missing too much work for migraines or in vitro fertilization.
The hard truth is that employers and insurers feel it’s irresponsible not to check you out, says David Harlow, a health care lawyer in Newton, Massachusetts. “They’re focused on protecting themselves financially, so using social media to do research is doing their due diligence,” he says. Ideally, insurance companies would consider all aspects of a patient’s health situation before denying claims, Harlow says: “After all, depressed people smile.” (A Manulife spokeswoman says the company “wouldn’t terminate coverage solely based on information found on Facebook.”)
A spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national health insurance association, said the group wasn’t aware of companies in the United States that investigate using social media. There’s no way to be sure, though—you can’t tell who’s been looking at your profile.
Still think you’re secure? Remember, ever-changing Facebook privacy defaults have made profiles more Internet-searchable and previously hidden photos suddenly visible. And Facebook reports that only half of its more than 500 million users employ tools designed to safeguard their info. “Depending on your privacy settings,” Malone notes, “maybe a handful of people, maybe 1,000 people, or maybe 100,000, can see what you post. Privacy protection works only if you use it and use it carefully.” Have fun with your friends, but choose wisely what you share with them.