Mental Health Apps Pose A Data Privacy Nightmare

( )- A recent Harvard study is raising concerns over whether the widespread use of smartphone apps geared toward mental health may put users’ medical privacy at risk.

Currently, a staggering 20,000 mental health apps are in circulation, with the North American continent having the largest share of mental health app users, leading some to wonder just how securely these apps protect the safety and privacy of user data.

Dr. John Torous, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, along with his colleagues, evaluated 578 leading mental health apps both for usefulness and trustworthiness, establishing a privacy score for each.

The study criteria included an app’s privacy policies, whether the app maker detailed how and why a user’s data is being collected, whether users were given the option to delete their data, and whether users could opt out of having their data collected.

After evaluating over 400 Android apps, the researchers found a strong correlation between download numbers and privacy scores. The more popular the app, the more likely it had solid privacy measures in place.

At the same time, user ratings for Android apps did not correlate with privacy scores.

When evaluating apps from Apple’s App Store, the researchers found no correlation between the app’s rating and privacy scores. Apple did not provide details on download numbers.

While 77 percent of the apps evaluated did offer privacy policies, the policies were presented in a way that could make it difficult for some users to understand. According to the researchers, to fully comprehend the privacy policy, a user would need an above-12th-grade reading ability.

Of the 578 apps reviewed, 44 percent, or 254 of them shared user data with third parties not directly associated with the app or its users’ interests.

Dr. Torous told Forbes that the research found that most mental health apps “are not good stewards of people’s personal or private health data.”