Mobile health is when you use smartphone apps to monitor or manage your own health. This is called mHealth. It is becoming more popular not only for patients and doctors, but also for those interested in health and fitness. mHealth apps are often used for real time monitoring, such as tracking blood sugar, heart rate and rhythm, physical activity, sleep, calories, etc. However, there are concerns about data privacy because of sensitive information which could be sold for profit. Patients using mHealth often do not have any control over what happens to their personal health information.
Health apps can share personal information
Researchers from Australia looked at what user data are collected by mHealth apps. They studied more than 15,000 free mHealth apps in the Google Play store and compared their privacy practices with a random sample of more than 8,000 non-health apps. They found that most of the apps could share personal data. Also, they found software that allowed people to be tracked over time and across different services. For example, about two thirds could collect identifiers or cookies (small text files with data associated with creating online profiles that allow websites to remember you), one third could collect a user’s email address, and about a quarter could identify the mobile phone tower connected to a user’s phone, providing location information. The researchers also found that at least 25% of user data violated what was stated in the privacy policies.
App users need more privacy protection
App users can make it more difficult to be tracked by disabling identifiers, adjusting app permissions, and using ad blockers. However, app stores, digital advertisers, and data-collecting companies also need to take responsibility by addressing whether these data should exist and how they should be used in a safe way.
Overall, this study found serious problems with privacy and inconsistent privacy practices in mHealth apps. Doctors should be aware of these issues, and should share this information with patients when determining the benefits and risks of mHealth apps.