COVID-19 has seen a rise in fitness apps, with the global download rate of 2020 rising by 46%. However, with all of these apps to help users track their fitness, there comes a looming question on whether this is the best way to track user health.
What do you mean?
To put it sweetly and simply: ever think about all the data that is inputted and collected for a wellness app? The obvious ones are name, age, gender, weight, and overall habits; but apps can also collect other forms of information that are not as well-known. These include: where the user has gone, the number of steps/jogging page of the user, calories consumption throughout the day, etc.
This then brings about the interesting question of: what happens to the information after it is put into the app? And what about the data that is gathered throughout app usage?
Generally, if the information that health apps asked for were to be asked by a doctor, it would be covered under doctor confidentiality. So, if a patient tells their doctor that they are eating poorly, sleeping only five hours a night, and not exercising, a doctor would not share that information. However, because wellness apps are generally not advertised as medical apps, and are not associated with specific medical associations, these apps are not put under the same regulation laws (in the U.S. at least — the U.K. and Canada have similar protections though).
So then, should the data provided in health and wellness apps be more heavily protected?
Downloading a health app is a really good way to improve overall physical, mental, and maybe even emotional health. However, the information that is gathered does have the potential to be harmful to users and the market at large if it is sold without user consent.
The effect on insurance
While companies and apps promise to not give away the names of users, they may have more than enough information to fully identify them – even without their given name – which in turn, poses the question: what happens when that data is bought by a third party, such as a health insurance company? Technically, most insurance companies get their information in above-board methods, such as questionnaires and official documents. However it is not implausible to assume that an unscrupulous company may buy a data package that could contain health information on prospective clients. This in turn would enable that company to look at health data they may not otherwise get from a doctor due to confidentiality laws, and be able to make different insurance projections than those they would have made originally.
Is it actually representative of the population?
Additionally, the data that is collected may not be a full and accurate representation of what the buyers are looking for. Data is the best way marketers and developers are able to test their product and see how it is circulating within their chosen niche. However, if that data is sold outside of the parent company, that type of understood bias from within these departments may not be fully – or accurately – represented, which could create a inaccurate and biased study.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: a research company buys data that has been collected from an app in the hopes of understanding the health goals of working millennials; but the researchers are not aware of the specific demographics and marketing techniques that the app has been targeting. For example, let’s say it is a health app that is mainly targeted towards the gaming industry. If the research company buys that data set while remaining unaware of the surrounding marketing and end-goals of the app company, the results based off of that study will be skewed and inaccurate for what the study claims to portray.
On the other hand, there is the logic that what is put into a health app, may not be the worst data to share.
Is anonymous really anonymous?
Anonymous is really not that anonymous. Unless users are willing to do an all-out, spy-level type of routine to ensure the apps could never make sense of the user’s whereabouts, or identity, it is probably a given that somewhere the identity of users has become public knowledge.
On top of that, aside from the initial mental reminder that user privacy may have been breached, the type of information shared on a wellness app is probably information that is already shared on social media.
Think about it: most people post their food, post-run selfies (sometimes with the location included), and potentially what they eat in a day on Instagram. Which then brings about the question: is our personal information really top-secret?
Rise of health studies
Another way to view the sharing of data collected by wellness apps is the ability to begin various studies. In one specific instance, Female Technology, or FemTech (women’s consumer health technology), has a plethora of information from menstrual tracking apps. A few of the more prominent apps have been known to share their information with third parties; while that's quite concerning, this has enabled several studies on female health to actually begin.
These studies are topics that could not previously be covered because that type of data was simply not available to researchers; yet, these studies were able to begin with the sharing of information.
While this is something that has predominantly been occurring in the FemTech industry, it is definitely something to think about in regards to the bigger picture of overall societal wellness in relation to what data is available/needed for particular studies.
There is no denying that privacy, especially in apps, is a necessity, and unfortunately, it is not a cover-all blanket as companies/apps only follow what is mandated for their general niche.
When thinking about data privacy, instead of thinking “should” questions (i.e. should we worry about our data privacy?), perhaps we would be better served in thinking about how this data is used, for example, how would you want your health data used, outside of the app?