The past year has been unlike any other, filled with stress, anxiety and sadness for millions of us and many people are turning to mental health apps for support.
But, is the deeply personal, sensitive information you’re sharing on the apps really as private as you think?
Mental health apps are becoming increasingly popular and offer a range of services from guided meditations to appointments with a licensed therapist. But, there’s a catch - mental health apps aren’t always covered by the same medical privacy laws, like HIPAA, that protect the information you share with a doctor in person.
Even when HIPAA rules do apply, they may not cover all the data an app collects.
“What companies tell you about what they do with your data is often pretty vague and confusing," says Consumer Reports tech editor Thomas Germain, "It’s usually buried in privacy policies where it can be hard to find.”
In fact, Consumer Reports looked at several popular mental health apps and found that many of them sent information to third parties, such as Facebook and Google. This kind of data is often used for advertising or other business research, which is common practice. But, it may not be something you expect from apps that deal with mental health.
“We didn’t see these apps sharing details about your condition or what you’re telling your therapist." said Germain. "But, they may be letting other companies know you’re using a mental health app.”
So how can you protect your data?
"If you’re paying to use any of the apps, you can likely opt out with privacy settings," said South Florida-based technology expert Craig Agranoff. "You can also use your phone to prevent this data from being passed along through."
Consumer Reports says if your data is being shared, you should know what information is being passed along.
“If you’re using a mental health app, be sure it’s clear about who will be administering your care," said Germain. "It’s worth seeking out licensed mental health professionals, and there are plenty of services that will connect you with them.”