There are a lot of apps that claim to aid with mental health, doing so by providing introductions on meditation, mindful thinking, and encouraging mental exercises that might help alleviate stress or anxiety.
Mental health is of course a sensitive subject, which is why data related to it should be protected at all costs. A new study suggests that isn't so. Apparently, 29 out of 36 mental health apps were sharing data for advertising or analytics to Facebook or Google, and many of them weren't disclosing that data-sharing to users.
Only six out of 12 Facebook-linked apps informed users what was happening, while only 12 out of 28 Google-linked apps did, as well. Of the entire mental health app pool, only 25 included policies laying out how they used data in any form, while 16 detailed secondary uses.
Mental Health Apps Sharing Data Without Consent
The study was published in the JAMA Network Open journal on Friday. It's the latest to highlight the potential dangers of trusting apps to which users provide sensitive health information. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that Flo, a period tracking app, shared users' period dates and pregnancy plans with Facebook. Other previous studies have reported that a number of health apps have security flaws or they shared with advertisers and analytics firms.
In the case of the most recent study in question, the researchers search for apps using the keywords "depression" and "smoking cessation." They downloaded the apps and checked to see whether they shared data by intercepting the traffic. In addition to the findings mentioned above, the researchers found that 33 out of the 36 apps shared information that could lend advertisers and data analytics insights into people's internet activities or overall digital behavior.
A few of those apps also shared highly sensitive information, such as health diary entries, reports about substance use, and usernames.
The researchers also discovered that 92 percent of the apps shared the data with at least one third-party company, most of them run by either Google or Facebook, that helps with marketing, advertising, and data analytics. Nearly half of those did not disclose that this was occurring, however.
What Can Be Done To Stop This?
In this day and age, people trust their phones to the point where they'll store everything in it — credit card numbers, PINs, answers to security questions, and even baking information. Mental health might not seem it belongs in that list, but it's a crucial and highly personal aspect of a person's overall well-being, especially in places where just talking about mental health is considered taboo.
According to Steven Chan, a physician at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, there should be a group that can approve mental health apps to ensure they'll handle data responsibly.
"Kind of like having the FDA's approval on things, or the FAA certifying a particular aircraft for safety," he said. "When there are no such institutions or the institutions themselves aren't doing a good job, it means we need to invest more as a public good."