Healthcare Privacy: There’s Not an App for That

There’s an app for just about everything. There’s an app for pretending to shave your beard. There’s an app for helping bread become toast. There’s even an app for timing your pee breaks at the movie theater. However pointless these apps might be, one of their functions is much more sinister…. they collect and sell your data. You might think, “Why does it matter if someone knows when I take my pee break during a movie?” Well. It probably doesn’t. But the practice of selling your data isn’t isolated to silly apps like these— apps may actually sell data about your  health and personal habits.

Let’s take an ovulation tracker, for example. Young women across the country willingly download apps to manually submit information about the schedule of their monthly period for a variety of reasons. They may be trying to get pregnant. They may be trying to avoid getting pregnant. They may just want to be as informed about their body as possible. But what they likely don’t know is the privacy policy of that app… or lack thereof.

According to a study by the British Medical Journal, 19 out of the 24 health monitoring apps they tested shared health related data with companies like Google or Amazon. Furthermore, one third of the apps that sold this personal data to companies did not even disclose the practice in any privacy policy.

In many cases, this data will be used in marketing and advertising campaigns. While targeted ads are annoying, they aren’t the real threat here. If health insurance companies gain access to your medications or medical history, it could affect insurance rates or employment benefits. The healthcare privacy rules that typically protect people simply don’t apply to information voluntarily submitted to mobile apps. The majority of health apps aren’t subject to national regulations, which can be detrimental to the financial well-being and privacy of people utilizing apps to help them with weight loss, addiction, and mental illnesses. This is even more worrisome as companies, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, attempt to move into the healthcare market.

Thankfully, this issue has not been completely ignored. Vermont recently passed privacy laws to force companies to be transparent about the collection of health-related data. Last November, legislation was proposed in the Senate to prevent companies from mining personal health data from patients. In the meantime, if you are worried about how companies may use the information from your apps, the best advice is to read an app’s privacy policy, know your own privacy settings, and be wary of free apps.