FTC takes off the gloves, v2: a walk on the technical side of ad pixel tracking

FTC explains its actions versus GoodRx and Teladoc’s BetterHelp. If ad trackers leave you a little “pixelated”, this FTC blog (who would have thunk?) is a decent explanation of what ad trackers, a/k/a third-party tracking pixels, do. They’re not evil, as some of the FTC statements would have you think, and have legitimate uses in tracking how your website pages are being used (and by whom). But GoodRx and BetterHelp in particular went too far in information gathering, sloppy handling, and monetizing customer information with third parties. 

  • Pixels, once tiny images, are now extensive bits of JavaScript or HTML code that send information back to the owner of the page they’re on. Consumers are of course totally unaware of their use.
  •  These codes can send back basic, non-identifiable, and useful information to marketers, such as pageviews, clicks, and interactions with ads or with their pages.
  • Unfortunately, code can be written to send back far more detailed information back to marketers, such as names, answers to questionnaires, email addresses, financial information, and more. Some of this can be hashed (a form of masking) but can be decoded. This is potentially sensitive information that needs to be handled carefully and with the assumption of confidentiality. 
  • As mentioned in our TTA articles, this information can be monetized by companies and provide an additional revenue stream. This type of information has value to ad networks (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Meta etc.), data brokers, social networks (Facebook, TikTok), advertisers, and others. 
  • Neither site asked permission from users to retain information nor to use it for third-party ad targeting.

The FTC blog then goes on to discuss their concerns and where FTC will go even more extensively into areas such as consumer harm and how companies manage the data. You don’t have to be a HIPAA-covered entity to fall under FTC’s purview–just capture consumer health data then share it with third parties or make deceptive representations.

Digital health companies are on notice to be concerned about yet another Federal three-letter agency. Expect more actions by FTC beyond GoodRx (getting off lightly at $1.5 million) and BetterHelp (dinged for $7.8 million which will somehow be returned to consumers).