Mental Health Apps Could Be Sharing Your Private Data

By Beth Leipholtz 04/23/19

A new study found that dozens of mental health apps shared user data with various advertisers, including big names like Facebook and Google.

Image: 
man using a mental health app

Despite the hope of confidentiality, individuals who use mental health apps may have their private information being shared with advertisers. 

According to a new study published in JAMA Network Open, some mental health apps are sharing private data without the app user’s knowledge. 

Tech the Lead reports that researchers looked into 36 different mental health-related apps. Of those 36, they discovered that 33 shared user data with various advertisers, including big names like Facebook and Google as well as smaller organizations. 

Overall, 92% of the apps studied were determined to have shared information with a third party and about 50% of those did not notify users of doing so.

Of the apps studied, three even explicitly stated they would not share data and nine others completely lacked a privacy policy of any sort. 

While the shared data wasn’t all necessarily related to medical conditions or were “personally identifiable,” the fact that any information at all was shared is a red flag, says John Torous, co-author of the study.

“It’s really hard to make an informed decision about using an app if you don’t even know who’s going to get access to some information about you,” Torous said, according to Tech the Lead. 

Researchers did find, however, that some of the information shared was sensitive, such as journal entries or information about substance use. 

Steven Chan, a physician at Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System who was not involved in the study but has worked with Torous before, tells The Verge that advertisers could use this information to manipulate audiences. 

“Potentially advertisers could use this to compromise someone’s privacy and sway their treatment decisions,” he said. 

Chan cited one example in which someone who is trying to quit smoking may be marketed cigarette alternatives. 

“Maybe if someone is interested in smoking, would they be interested in electronic cigarettes?” he said. “Or could they potentially introduce them to other similar products, like alcohol?”

Researchers concluded that mental health app users likely lack the access to information and the choice about such sharing practices. 

“Data sharing with third parties that includes linkable identifiers is prevalent and focused on services provided by Google and Facebook,” the researchers wrote. “Despite this, most apps offer users no way to anticipate that data will be shared in this way. As a result, users are denied an informed choice about whether such sharing is acceptable to them.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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