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Is your health app sharing your data?

The torso and legs of a seated person using a smartphone.

May 27, 2019—User beware: The app you turn to for help with a health issue may be sharing your data without your knowledge or consent, a new study shows.

It looked at 36 top-ranked smartphone apps designed for people facing depression or trying to stop smoking. The apps were available in both Android and iOS app stores. None were identified by name in the study, but they were based on search result rankings from January 2018.

Researchers found that 33 of the apps transmitted private data to third parties, such as advertisers. Only 12 accurately disclosed this in a privacy policy. And 11 of the apps didn't have a privacy policy at all.

In most cases, the data was sent to services operated by Facebook or Google. In some cases, it was shared even when the apps didn't include logins for these platforms or give users a chance to opt out.

Of the 33 apps in which personal data was passed on:

  • 26 shared weak identifiers, such as keys that could track a user's behavior over time and on different platforms.
  • 9 shared strong identifiers, like information about the user's device or a username.
  • 2 shared self-reported health information, like substance use or health diary content.

Other sensitive information was kept private, such as passwords, birth dates and other kinds of medical data.

None of this means that health apps can't be beneficial. They may help some people cope with or overcome serious health problems.

But researchers encouraged app makers to provide more transparency about what data is shared. And in the meantime, it makes sense for users to look carefully at privacy policies before choosing to use a health app.

To learn more, read the full study in JAMA Network Open.

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