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Can Apps Be Trusted with Our Health Data?

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You must love the convenience of using a health app. It helps you keep track of your prescriptions and know if you’re unwell by checking the symptoms.

However, a new study carried in the BMJ Journal reveals that of the 24 most popular Android health apps on Google Play Store, 79% violate your privacy by sharing your data. Quinn Grundy, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Toronto who led the study, says that there’s a feeling of there not being any privacy anymore even though most people consider health data to be protected information and aren’t comfortable about it being shared.

Should you be comfortable sharing health data?

There are good reasons why you might be uncomfortable about sharing personal health data. Senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports states that information shared by consumers with health apps is particularly personal. Putting up such information in the public domain can affect your health score, which again influences insurance underwriting.

You may be under the impression that such information is legally protected. However, health apps seem to operate in a mysterious realm with a puzzling set of rules.

To know about where you stand vis-à-vis your health data shared by health apps, let’s get deeper into what the study found.

The Findings of the Study

After identifying 24 of the most downloaded health apps ranked among the top 100 and patronized by various prominent organizations, Grundy and her colleagues created multiple dummy profiles. After that, they ran the apps several times to know what information they had revealed in the app was revealed by it and where. The user data shared varied from app to app, but they included:

  • Username
  • Device names
  • Operating system versions
  • Email addresses
  • Locations
  • Web browsing behavior
  • Medication

Not only was this information shared by the app with its developers and the parent firms, but with third-party companies as well. The information shared was used for various purposes, including sales and marketing. There’s every possibility of the information being shared further with other entities, the fourth parties. These fourth parties may be tech giants like Oracle, Facebook, and Alphabet, which use the information to build your profile and target you with ads.

As the legal limitations to prevent your data from being shared are few, you can’t prevent these apps from using them. However, here are a few tips you may follow to ensure that your information isn’t shared in improper ways.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

  • Read the privacy policies thoroughly. Confirm if the app shares your health data with third parties. You should be cautious if this issue isn’t mentioned there, warns Grundy. You should also take the time to check app permissions, which will tell you what sort of information the app shares with third parties. You should be wary of privacy policies full of legal jargon and ambiguity, making them hard to understand.
  • Check your privacy settings. You should make yourself familiar with your phone’s privacy settings and those in the app as well. You should be very careful about evaluating all the permissions an app seeks. Note that most health apps need no access to the contacts you’ve saved on your phone, your location, or the microphone.
  • Be wise when you choose the app. You should opt only for apps that are from reliable sources (your health insurer or that have a direct link with your doctor’s office). There’s more chance of these being under the scope of privacy.
  • Be cautious of free or ad-supported apps. The very aim of free apps is to collect user data, and the ad-supported ones collect your data to bombard you with their ads. As a user, you still end up paying for the free apps in other ways, as pointed out by Grundy. It’s a violation of the principles of free trade.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network. A VPN for phone helps you by setting up an encrypted connection with the server. It helps hide your IP address, which obscures your online identity and encrypts information you send forward into the digital space. Hiding your surfing history prevents marketers from creating your profile to target you with ads.

Conclusion

While privacy policies do commit that your name or other personal information won’t be shared, health apps still provide enough information about you that makes your identification easy. Especially apps for diabetes and psychiatry are found to share personal health data, which is indeed a gross violation of your privacy. The tips we’ve shared above go a long way in giving you a shield of protection. Exercise caution at all times to protect your valued privacy.

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