There’s no denying that apps make our lives easier, especially when it comes to health and wellness. Health and fitness apps make up a $38.2 billion industry, according to a market research report.
Let’s dive into the real cost of health apps and what information they could be sharing.
How Many Health Apps Are There?
From monitoring your sleep patterns, heart rate, mental health, reproductive health, and fitness goals to your overall health, there’s an app for just about everything.
According to Deloitte, there are more than 350,000 health apps available globally. However, not all apps are created equal. Just 110 of these popular health 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.
Your Phone’s Built-In Health App
Both iPhones and Androids come with pre-installed health apps.
Apple Health automatically collects data such as daily steps, headphone audio levels, walking asymmetry, steadiness, and more. But there’s plenty of additional information you can enter, too, including your sleep cycle and history, body measurements, menstrual cycle information, and more. If you pair your Apple Watch with your iPhone, you’ll get even more information, like details about loud sounds, hard falls, and changes in heart rate.
Similarly, Samsung Health tracks steps, active minutes, heart rates, menstrual cycles, and sleep. Some devices can also track snoring, ambient noise levels while sleeping, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen, and blood pressure.
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?
“Selling data” 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.
There are whole companies that exist to create data sets 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 these large data sets to another company that’s interested in financing or marketing or more.
Can Apps Link Data Back to Me?
Unfortunately, they can 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 to identify 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?
Now that you’re aware of the risks, you can take some precautions.
Choose a health app that’s as secure as possible, one that includes a privacy notice, adjustable privacy settings, and solid reviews.
Search the app online and see if there are any well-known privacy issues. Ask your doctor’s office 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. If it’s information you absolutely don’t want someone else to have access to, storing it offline may be a safer bet.
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