Facebook spying costs Canadian woman her health benefits

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On the surface, the twisted tale of Nathalie Blanchard seems to be yet another cautionary tale about how Facebook isn't really private, how social media can get you fired, and how the internet is a cruel mistress. On a deeper level, Blanchard's story indicates the growing popularity -- and danger -- of Facebook spies.

Blanchard, a Quebec employee of IBM, has been on longterm sick leave since Valentine's Day 2008, when she was diagnosed with major depression. For the ensuing year and a half, she has lived off monthly payments from her health insurance company, Manulife.
Recently, however, those payments stopped. The reason? Manulife got into her Facebook profile.

On the site, Blanchard posted pictures of herself relaxing at the beach, hanging out at a Chippendales-style club, and generally having a lot of fun. Although Manulife has stated that "we would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook," Blanchard claims that an agent from the insurer blamed the photos for the termination of her benefits. She has gone to court to have her benefits reinstated and is seeking $275,000 in damages from Manulife. Her next court date is December 8.

With 'Friends' Like These...

Obviously, attempting to diagnose a psychiatric condition based on a handful of photographs is a fool's errand. But Blanchard's case echoes a growing tendency to use social media and seemingly private internet sites to evaluate employees. Eight percent of employers say they've fired staffers for postings on social media sites, and 17% have disciplined employees for violating blogging or message-board policies, according to Proofpoint, an internet security firm.

In some situations, it isn't hard to figure out where employers got their information -- as in the case of a British woman who forgot she had "friended" her boss when she ranted about him on Facebook. And to be honest, it's tough to feel sympathy for someone who refers to her employer as a "pervy wanker" in a forum where he is likely to see her comment and take offense.

In Blanchard's case, however, culpability is harder to determine. It's unclear how exactly Manulife's investigators managed to gain access to her Facebook profile, given that it's only available to people she has friended, and it's unlikely that she would accept a friend request from her insurer.

Tracking Facebook Users

The answer might lie in the large number of people Blanchard has granted access to her profile. In an interview, she said she has 500 "friends"; while it's certainly possible that she knows all these people exceedingly well, it seems more likely that many of Blanchard's "friends" are casual acquaintances at best. At worst, at least one could be an online avatar created by Manulife.

A Canadian debt-collecting company, CBV Collections, was caught this year using a fictitious Facebook profile to spy on some debtors. Banking on the tendency of many Facebook users to blindly accept friend requests, CBV managed to track the movements and expenditures of at least 600 of its cases. Some countries, including Canada, are considering the legality of Facebook searches, but Blanchard's case suggests that Facebook may still be a cheap and effective method of investigation.

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