Summary: It’s no secret that apps on our phones have a lot of information about us. And when it comes to health apps, that information can be very private. Find out how popular health apps are, if they’re selling your data, and how to keep your information safer online. Want the tl;dr version? Grab EarthLink Protect+, your personal cyber safety package.
There’s no denying that apps make our lives easier. (And while yes, a tower of onion rings does fit the bill, we mean the kind you keep on your phone.) The most popular mobile apps don’t include health apps, but it’s still a $38.2 billion industry according to a market research report.
You might be wondering: how is it a $38.2 billion industry if I’m only using the free versions? The short answer? Data and advertising. Let’s dive into the real cost of health apps and what information they could be sharing. And if you missed our guide on how to keep your health information safer on your phone, be sure to grab that, too.
How Many Health Apps Are There?
There’s an app for just about everything – and usually more than one to choose from. According to Deloitte, there are more than 350,000 health apps available globally. However, not all apps are created equal. Just 110 of these apps have been downloaded more than 10 million times, which is nearly half of all health app downloads.
About 1 in 3 Americans either have used or currently use a wearable fitness tracker (think Fitbit or Apple Watch) or app to track their health, according to Gallup. And that number continues to grow!
The pandemic also hastened the growth of this industry, with more people downloading apps ranging from symptom checkers to telehealth with their established doctors. Plus, countries requiring frequent vaccine verification often had a corresponding app, such as England’s NHS app.
How Do Free Apps Make Money?
To understand just what these apps collect, it’s important to know how they’re making money. Here are a few of the most common ways apps that are free to download make a profit:
- In-App Purchases: think things like virtual money or health points, ad-blocking, or even subscriptions to exclusive content
- In-App Ads: arguably the most common, apps advertise affiliate products. Ads can be tailored to certain types of users, and when someone interacts with the ad, the app gets paid
- Free vs. Paid: many apps have a free version that’s more basic, but prompt you to upgrade to the paid version to unlock additional benefits
- Email Marketing: companies use this to send promotional offers directly to your inbox, trying to persuade you to spend money directly with them or with an affiliate
Do Apps Sell My Data?
We’ve gone over the main ways that free apps make their money. But are apps actually selling your data? And is it a bigger deal for health apps to be doing this?
This is often referred to as data mining, which identifies useful patterns in large sets of data. Companies can use the patterns to predict trends and determine their next action. For healthcare, this often looks like working to increase efficiency and improve (or save) patients’ lives.
According to The Guardian, research has found that two-thirds of apps collect advertising identifiers (hi, internet cookies), one-third collect email addresses, and about one-quarter could even get a location based on what phone tower a device was connected to.
And, unlike your doctor’s office, these companies aren’t bound by HIPAA’s (also known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules, which protect your information. That means that companies like data brokers and period tracking apps can legally sell health-related information. This was the case with the tracking app Flo, which was sharing data with Facebook (which then used it for advertising purposes). There are whole companies that exist to create datasets on individuals, package them, and sell them on the market. Data brokers can profit off of your personal information time and time again, and it’s a $200 billion industry. Instead of outright selling your data, they can license it to another company that’s interested in financing or marketing or more.
Can Apps Link Data Back to Me?
It’s possible that you’re thinking about these large data sets and feeling annoyed, but not unsafe. Surely there’s no way a company could target your specific information, right?
Unfortunately, they could (and do). According to Slate, while buyers can’t request health data on a specific individual, some data brokers do provide information with names attached to it. Even for companies that “anonymize” their data, reidentification is probable. A recent study by Nature found that “99.98% of Americans would be correctly re-identified in any dataset using 15 demographic attributes.” In other words, companies can use the variety of information available about you to home in on your behaviors, health concerns, location, and more. And the more information you put online, the easier it is for someone to tie it all back to you.
How Can I Protect My Personal Data Online?
All of this might sound scary but remember that knowledge is power. Now that you’re aware of the risks, you can take some precautions. First, learn how to keep the health information in your phone safer. Think things like your built-in health app, medication names and schedules, and your blood type.
Next, be sure you’re choosing a health app that’s as secure as possible. A good health app should include a privacy notice (take the time to actually read this, as it should explain what information the app collects, why, and how it shares information with other companies), adjustable privacy settings, and solid reviews.
Go ahead and do an online search of the app, too. If there are any well-known privacy issues, that should come up easily and you can decide if you’re comfortable hitting “download.” You can also ask your doctor if they have an app. This can be an easy way to access your medical history or test results and your data is less likely to become comprised thanks to HIPAA.
Take a moment to rethink what you need to store in an app. Just because your wearable tech can track something doesn’t mean you have to use it for that. Maybe you like tracking your workouts but don’t like getting your sleep quality score every morning. Or instead of using a period tracking app, mark it on your paper calendar or planner. If it’s information you absolutely don’t want someone else to have access to, storing it offline may be a safer bet.
That said, we love our tech, too, and it definitely makes our lives easier. There are a few steps you can take whenever you’re online to stay safer, like investing in a VPN or dark web monitoring package. We’ve worked to make staying safer online simple. Sign up for EarthLink Protect or Protect+. We’ve partnered with Norton, the best in the business, to create the most comprehensive protection against the dark web. You can install it on your computer, phone, and tablet, and you’ll get real-time threat protection, a secure VPN, dark web monitoring, data breach notifications, a million-dollar protection package, and more.
Taking a few minutes to set up these extra precautions could save you a whole lot of time down the road. Plus, you’ll be able to sleep easier knowing your data is safer than before. Ready to find your cyber safety plan?