Mental Health Apps Share User Data without Disclosing Privacy Policies

Health care professionals prescribing health apps should only recommend those apps that have demonstrated secure data transmission behaviors. The majority of the top-ranked mental apps for depression and smoking cessation share data with third-parties without accurately disclosing the practice in privacy policies. A cross-sectional assessment of 36 of the top-ranked apps in the US and Australia found that the majority of these health apps share data with third-parties, but only a third of the apps accurately disclosed the practice in their privacy policies, according to a recent study published in JAMA.

The researchers from Australia’s Black Dog Institute and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston analyzed the privacy policies of the top-ranked apps, as well as the encrypted and unencrypted data transmission between April and June 2018.

They found that 69 percent, or 25 of the 36 apps, incorporated a privacy policy for users. Of those with a policy, 88 percent were clear about the primary uses for its data collection. However, only 16 of those apps shared the secondary uses for data sharing.

What’s concerning is that while 92 percent, or 23 of the 25 apps with a privacy policy, notified users that their data would be transmitted to a third-party, the researchers detected data transmission in 33 of all of the 36 analyzed health apps.

“Almost half of the apps (17 of 36 (47 percent)) transmitted data to a third-party but lacked a privacy policy (9 apps), failed to disclose this transmission in policy text (5 apps), or explicitly stated that transmission would not occur (3 apps),” the researchers wrote.

About 70 percent of the apps that positively indicated that data would be shared with advertisers and 61 percent shared data with advertisers and analytics services. And only one app explicitly stated that their data would not be shared with any third-party.

For more information on HIPAA compliance, contact the compliance experts at HIPAAcraticRx.

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