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Security & privacy

Mental health, quit-smoking apps are sharing your data

Mental health issues and addictions are some of the most difficult challenges a person can face. Sufferers need all the support they can get, so it’s no wonder that many turn to technology for answers to their questions.

Thankfully, there’s a range of  specialty apps and programs designed for people with mental health and substance issues. These apps target some of the most vulnerable members of society, so it should be reasonable to assume that developers would care enough to protect their users’ data from prying eyes.

As it turns out, this trust might be misplaced. A new study is suggesting that even apps for mental health and addiction are feeding user data to advertising conglomerates. What’s more, not only are many of the apps not alerting users, they’re working in the background even when you’re not logged into social media. If you struggle with addiction or mental health issues, here’s what you need to know to protect your privacy.

How are third parties accessing my mental health data?

Just like with most data-collection endeavors, the details on harvesting are found in an app’s privacy policy. In a study posted to the JAMA Network Open, researchers at the University of New South Wales examined 36 of the top ranking free apps and found that 25 of them had some kind of tangible privacy statement. For the apps that did have policies, 23 out of the 25 told users that their data might be shared with third parties.


Related: What are the worst companies for data privacy? You’ve got to see this list.


Out of the 23 that explicitly said they share data, 16 mention that users’ data goes to advertisers in particular. Only one of the apps says that no data would be shared at all.

In total, the researchers noted that 33 out of 36 apps, or 92% of the mental health and addiction apps they sampled, shared data with third parties. The most common services that collected and shared user data from the apps were Google and Facebook. It’s unknown which advertisers and analytic companies Google and Facebook sent the harvested data to.

How can third parties use my mental health data?

The researchers fear that data harvested by large conglomerates may be used to unfairly target vulnerable users. People who struggle with cigarette addiction, for example, might be targeted with advertisements for alcohol — which would create a vicious cycle of replacing one addiction with another. For people who struggle with mental health issues, researchers worry that quack cures or snake-oil supplements might be pushed to their social media feeds.

The purpose of this research is to point out just how carelessly companies handle customer data, and to push towards better privacy policies that reward responsible data use. With devices moving towards biometric security and health tracking, protecting our most personal data will be a battle for the ages. Tech companies and advertisers stand to make billions by knowing how people think and operate. It’s up to users to demand their data be used responsibly.

There’s an internet saying that goes “If a service is free, that means you are the product.” As we’ve seen time and time again, this wisdom seems to hold up. App background

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