Free apps marketed to people with depression or who want to quit smoking are hemorrhaging user data to third parties like Facebook and Google — but often don’t admit it in their privacy policies, a new study reports. This study is the latest to highlight the potential risks of entrusting sensitive health information to our phones.
Though most of the easily-found depression or smoking cessation apps in the Android and iOS stores share data, only a fraction of them actually disclose this. The findings add to a string of worrying revelations about what apps are doing with the health information we entrust to them. For instance, a Wall Street Journal investigation recently revealed the period tracking app Flo shared users’ period dates and pregnancy plans with Facebook. And previous studies have reported health apps with security flaws or that shared data with advertisers and analytics companies.
In this new study, published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers searched for apps using the keywords “depression” and “smoking cessation.” Then they downloaded the apps and checked to see whether the data put into them was shared by intercepting the app’s traffic. Much of the data the apps shared didn’t immediately identify the user or was even strictly medical. But 33 of the 36 apps shared information that could give advertisers or data analytics companies insights into people’s digital behavior. And a few shared very sensitive information, like health diary entries, self reports about substance use, and usernames.