Information privacy and quality of care (3) BMJ: Health apps are designed to track and share

18 June, 2021

Interesting editorial in The BMJ on how commercial interests can potentially misuse data from health apps to exploit or discriminate.

CITATION: Health apps are designed to track and share [editorial]

Quinn Grundy et al.

BMJ 2021; 373 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n1429 (Published 17 June 2021)

Cite this as: BMJ 2021;373:n1429

'We must advocate for greater scrutiny, regulation, and accountability'

'Health apps are just one source of user data that is collected, transmitted to third parties, then aggregated to create detailed impressions about users and people such as them. These sources of big data are commercialised, often as consumer insights or algorithms, and used to deliver microtargeted adverts, influence political behaviours, or make decisions about health insurance, employment, and housing, sometimes with exploitive or discriminatory effects...

Tangari and colleagues (doi:10.1136/bmj.n1248) analysed more than 15 000 free Android apps in the “medical” and “health and fitness” categories of the Google Play store and compared their privacy practices with a random sample of more than 8000 apps from store categories unrelated to health. They examined the apps’ code to understand what kind of user data might be shared and with whom, and then during network traffic analysis which data were actually shared. Finally, they assessed users’ awareness of privacy failings as expressed in app store reviews.

The authors found that mobile health apps were designed for tracking and sharing information. Developers had programmed most health apps (88%) to enable tracking capabilities. About two thirds of apps could collect advert identifiers or cookies, which can be used to uniquely identify users across different apps and websites, even if not by name. One third could collect a user’s email address, and about a quarter could identify the mobile phone tower to which a user’s device is connected, potentially providing information on the user’s geolocation...

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Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator, neil@hifa.org www.hifa.org