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Study: Most mental health apps give Facebook, Google access to personal info without users' knowledge

It comes as no surprise that social media sites share your personal information. But, do you know that smartphone app that you download to your iPhone or Android phone share your personal information with companies that buy social media personal information.   All those 'FREE" apps are supported by unknown information harvesting companies. BEWARE.

A new study published in JAMA Network Open found that a majority of mental health and wellness apps surveyed distribute users' personal data to commercial third parties like Facebook and Google without explicitly informing users.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney, the Sydney-based Black Dog Institute, and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry in Boston examined 36 apps for depression and smoking cessation that was highest ranked in the iOS and Android app stores in early 2018. Results show that 33 of the programs transmitted user data to Facebook, Google or other entities for advertising or analytical purposes, but only 12 fully disclosed this practice to users.

Just 23 of the surveyed apps incorporated privacy policies mentioning that data would be transmitted to a third party, and many of those fail to explicitly describe how the data will be used, and by which third parties.

According to the study's authors, despite the mental health benefits of these and similar apps, the lack of disclosure "may limit their ability to offer effective guidance to consumers and health care professionals," who would likely prefer to know whether and how their personal health information is accessed by advertising and analytical firms.

Data-sharing by free apps is ‘out of control’ with almost 90% of free apps on Google Play sharing your details with companies, Oxford University study finds.

Even paid apps have the same attendant risks.

Google Play Store                       

Apple App Store

How can you find where Google and Apple share their user information? Even this may be irrelevant because the information sharing is done by the App developer.

Readers should evaluate the worth of a free app vs the real risk of sharing their personal data from a health-related app.

How do you know if an app marketplace is trustworthy?

Some characteristics of a safe marketplace are:

Terms of service that is well developed.
Clear contact information and a troubleshooting FAQ.
Strict app developer criteria.
A history of removing vendors with poor content.

Learn About the Vendor or Developer

Some questions to ask about app vendors are:

Do they have a professional website?
What is the privacy policy?
How is the information collected and used?
What information is available to advertisers?
What is the policy for disclosure of personal information?
Does the vendor have clear security policies?
Is there clear contact information?

There is no centralized source listing unsafe apps. The number of new apps that appear daily is enormous. The Food and Drug Administration is begining to evaluate and regulate health care apps.  Caveat emptor!

Study: Most mental health apps give Facebook, Google access to personal info without users' knowledge:

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