Tech News : 20 NHS Trusts Shared Personal Data With Facebook

7th June 2023

An Observer investigation has reported uncovering evidence that 20 NHS Trusts have been collecting data about patients’ medical conditions and sharing it with Facebook.

Using A Covert Tracking Tool 

The newspaper’s investigation found that over several years, the trusts have been using the Meta Pixel analytics tool to collect patient browsing data on their websites. The kind of data collected includes page views, buttons clicked, and keywords searched. This data can be matched with IP address and Facebook accounts to identify individuals and reveal their personal medical details.

Sharing this collected personal data, albeit unknowingly, with Facebook’s parent company without the consent of NHS Trust website users and, therefore, illegally (data protection/GDPR) is a breach of privacy rights.

Meta Pixel 

The Meta Pixel analytics tool is a piece of code which enables website owners to track visitor activities on their website, helps identify Facebook and Instagram users and see how they interacted with the content on your website. This information can then be used for targeted advertising.

17 Have Now Removed It 

It’s been reported that since the details of the newspaper’s investigation were made public, 17 of the 20 NHS trusts identified as using the Meta Pixel tool have now removed it from their website, with 8 of those trusts issuing an apology.

The UK’s Infromation Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is now reported to have begun an investigation into the activities of the trust.

UK GDPR 

Under the UK Data Protection Act 2018 and the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organisations processing personal data must obtain lawful grounds for processing, which typically includes obtaining user consent. Personal data is any information that can directly or indirectly identify an individual.

An NHS trust using an analytics tool like Meta Pixel on their website to collect and share personal data without obtaining user consent, could potentially be illegal and both the NHS trust and the analytics tool provider (Meta) have responsibilities under data protection laws.

The GDPR and the UK Data Protection Act require organisations to provide transparent information to individuals about the collection and use of their personal data, including the purposes of processing and any third parties with whom the data is shared. Individuals must be given the opportunity to provide informed consent before their personal data is collected, unless another lawful basis for processing applies.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The recent revelation that 20 NHS Trusts have been collecting and sharing personal data with Facebook through the use of the Meta Pixel analytics tool raises important lessons for businesses regarding their data protection practices. The Trusts’ actions, conducted without user consent, appear to represent a breach of privacy rights and potentially violate data protection laws, including the UK Data Protection Act 2018 and GDPR.

The Meta Pixel analytics tool, although widely used as an advertising effectiveness measurement tool, can have unintended consequences when it comes to personal data, such as medical data, and data privacy. The amount of information shared through this tool is often underestimated, and the implications for the NHS trusts could be severe. As several online commentators have pointed out, the trusts may have known little about how the Meta Pixel tool works and, therefore, collected, and shared user data unwittingly, however ignorance is unlikely to stand up as an excuse.

It is, of course encouraging that in response to the investigation, 17 out of the 20 identified NHS Trusts have at least removed the Meta Pixel tool from their websites, with some going on to issue apologies. To avoid similar privacy breaches and maintain the trust of customers, businesses should take immediate action.

Examples of how businesses could ensure their data protection compliance as regards their website and any tools used could include establishing a cross-functional data protection team with members from legal, technology, and marketing, and with the support of senior management. They could also conduct a thorough analysis of all data collected and transferred by websites and apps and identify the data necessary for their operations and ensure that legal grounds (such as consent) are in place for collecting and processing that data. For most smaller businesses it’s a case of remembering to stay on top of data protection matters, check what any tools are collecting and keep the importance of consent top-of-mind.

The implications for Meta of the newspaper’s report and the impending ICO investigation are significant as well. The incident highlights the need for greater transparency and understanding of the tools and services offered by companies like Meta, especially when it comes to sensitive topics and personal data. Privacy concerns arise when information from browsing habits is shared with social media platforms. Meta must address these concerns and ensure that the data collected through its tools is handled in accordance with data protection laws and user consent.

Overall, this case emphasises the importance of data protection compliance, informed consent, and transparency in the handling of personal data. Businesses must prioritise privacy and data security to maintain customer trust and avoid legal consequences.