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Security & privacy

Privacy warning: Do mental health apps share your data?

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The pandemic has disrupted our lives, and our mental health is suffering from it. People are stuck at home away from friends and family. Some have lost their jobs or at least part of their income. Social distancing is important, but it has its side effects. It’s no surprise that there are apps to help. Mental health apps should help us work through our issues, but some create more problems. Plus, how safe is your privacy when using these apps?

The good

Mental health apps can assist with a range of problematic areas related to sleep, stress, anxiety, depression and more. They can offer self-care through activities and tools designed for this very purpose.

Telehealth appointments are on the rise as it can be difficult to get in-person appointments with healthcare providers. Now some apps help you make an appointment with a mental health professional, whether it’s virtual or in-person.

RELATED: 20 services you can use for free

Mental health apps offer affordable or free resources for people who may find it difficult to seek help in more traditional ways. You can jump into the app anytime through your smart device. Many of these programs have forums where you can get in touch with others dealing with the same issues.

The bad

Though most mental health apps let you seek information and treatment in anonymity, there is more that you are not being told about. As with any app you download, you allow a certain amount of personal data to be used at the app’s discretion. You would think this would be clearer when it comes to your private health, but that is not always the case.

A study from Consumer Reports revealed privacy issues in seven popular mental health apps.

  • 7 Cups said the company adheres to HIPAA guidelines (more on that in a bit) when it collects data for research or analytics and when the app connects people to mental health professionals. When users interact with each other via the app, however, they are free to share any personal information in the name of collaboration.
  • Many apps share data with Facebook, and BetterHelp said that this information is grouped rather than used individually, as per the social network’s policies.
  • Talkspace said it would use data from Facebook to optimize future ads. The app also conforms to HIPAA rules when setting up sessions with therapists.
  • MindDoc said it complies with HIPAA regulations.
  • Sanity & Self does share data with Facebook but did not respond to inquiries.
  • Wysa sends data to Facebook and said the company doesn’t collect any data covered by HIPAA.
  • Youper said it shares data with Facebook, but data the app collects doesn’t fall under HIPAA guidelines.

Where HIPAA comes in (or doesn’t)

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is a federal statute that protects your private information whenever you visit a healthcare professional.

This extends to all the companies your doctor, psychologist, dentist, etc., may work with, including insurance and billing companies, which can only use your data concerning your care and the finances involved therein. Exceptions may include court orders, subpoenas and missing persons cases, among others.

HIPAA rules and regulations don’t necessarily apply to mental health apps. The regulation isn’t there yet. While some companies have voluntarily taken steps to comply with HIPAA, they are not obligated to do so. Tap or click here to see how to check up on your medical records.

The burden is on you for now

If you are using a mental health app and it’s helping you out, then great. But take some time to find out what you are sharing with the company and how it’s being used. Hopefully, this will change with better policies and regulations, but for now, here’s how to start.

  • When downloading any app for iOS in the App Store, you can view its privacy policy by tapping See Details under the App Privacy section. Some apps provide a link to their privacy policy on their app store page as well. You can also check up on apps you already downloaded in the App Store.
  • For Android, open Google Play, open any app, and look for the Developer section in the app details page, then select Privacy Policy.
  • Within the apps themselves, check the home screen or setting pages for privacy policies. You can also visit the company’s official website and find it there.
  • Check app settings for options to opt out of some or all types of data collection.

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