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'Serious privacy problems' warning over mobile health apps

Thursday June 17th 2021

Thousands of free mobile health apps downloaded to smart devices have inadequate and inconsistent privacy practices, according to new analysis published today.

Research into the so-called mHealth apps by a team at Macquarie University, Australia, found the lack of privacy disclosures in many of them prevent users from making informed choices around the data.

Writing in the latest edition of The BMJ, the authors warn of “serious problems with privacy and inconsistent privacy practices”, saying that the collection of personal user information is “a pervasive practice”.

They say patients should be informed on the apps’ privacy practices and the associated privacy risks before they install and use them.

In their analysis, they identified more than 15,000 free mHealth apps in the Google Play store and compared their privacy practices with a random sample of more than 8,000 non-health apps.

They found while mHealth apps collected less user data than other types of mobile apps, 88% could access and potentially share personal data.

About two thirds could collect advert identifiers or cookies, while one third could collect a user’s email address. About a quarter could identify the mobile phone tower to which a user’s device is connected, which could potentially provide information on the user’s geolocation.

While only 4% of mHealth apps actually transmitted data – mainly the user’s name and location information – the team describe this as “substantial” and say it should be taken as a lower bound for the real data transmissions.

The team also found 87.5% of data collection operations and 56% of user data transmissions were on behalf of third party services, such as external advertisers, analytics, and tracking providers, and 23% of user data transmissions occurred on insecure communication channels.

They also established 5,903 (28%) of the mHealth apps did not offer any privacy policy text, while at least 25% (15,480) of user data transmissions violated what was stated in the privacy policies.

Only 1.3% (3,609) of user reviews raised concerns about privacy.

Although the study provides observational findings, the authors say: “This analysis found serious problems with privacy and inconsistent privacy practices in mHealth apps. Clinicians should be aware of these and articulate them to patients when determining the benefits and risks of mHealth apps.”

Tangari G, Ikram M, Ijaz K et al. Mobile health and privacy: cross sectional study. BMJ 17 June 2021; doi: 10.1136/bmj.n1248

[abstract]

Tags: Australia | General Health

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