Healthcare Technology Featured Article

September 05, 2013

Mobile Health Apps Are Sharing Your Personal Data

Many people have pumped up their fitness levels with apps like RunKeeper and have supercharged their weight loss plans with MyFitnessPal. However, the convenience and intuitive integration of these apps comes at a price: your data, given to third-party companies.

According to Web analytics and privacy group Evidon, in a study conducted for The Financial Times, 20 of the top fitness apps transmit data to about 70 different companies. For example, the fitness app MapMyRun shares data with 11 third-party advertising and analytics businesses.

MapMyRun is part of the MapMyFitness family of apps that includes MapMyRide for cyclists, MapMyDogWalk and MapMyHike. MapMyFitness, according to reporting from the Financial Times, earns half of its revenue from data-sharing partnerships with health insurance companies like Aetna and Humana.

On one hand, partnerships between mobile apps and insurance companies can have important benefits for policy holders. For example, MapMyFitness has developed a special version of its app for Humana customers enrolled in employee health plans. When these customers reach certain health benchmarks, they receive insurance discounts or incentive prizes from their employers.

On the other hand, some app developers refuse to partner with insurance companies. Leon Atkinson-Derman is CEO of Winkpass Creations, which created iPeriod, an app that tracks a woman's menstrual cycles.

Winkpass does have the capability to target advertising to women based on information that they enter into the app. For example, a woman that records headaches during her period could see a targeted ad for pain relief medication.

While he does allow advertising, Atkinson-Derman draws the line at sharing data with insurance companies. "The fact of the matter is, insurance companies are trying to learn things about people and use it against them," he said. "If an insurance company were to want to buy iPeriod, I’d say 'no.'"

Earlier this summer, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse expressed concern about what it called "considerable privacy risks" related to 43 different fitness apps. According to the Clearinghouse, many apps did not effectively communicate their data-sharing practices in their privacy policies.

Many of today's most popular mobile health apps are available at no charge to users. However, as Stuart Dredge of The Guardian points out, "If you're not paying, you're the product."

Edited by Alisen Downey

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