Health and fitness apps: Is your privacy in critical condition?

Do fitness apps put your privacy at risk?
Do fitness apps put your privacy at risk?
(Source: Josiah Mackenzie)
(Source: Josiah Mackenzie)

(Toledo News Now) - Chances are you've downloaded a health or fitness app on your smart phone. The industry is skyrocketing and expected to grow to $26 billion by 2017. Millions of people use them and enter information about everything from their diet, to health conditions, to even sexual activity.

While these apps can have some amazing benefits, we've found your privacy could be in critical condition.

Avid biker Matt Demargel pedaled his way to losing 30 pounds and credits health and fitness apps for helping him.

"The apps have been very critical in helping me achieve my goals," said Demargel.

He enters his height, weight, everything he eats, along with how much he exercises into one app, using another app to track each bike ride. But Demargel realizes he's not the only one watching his progress.

As research by Evidon, a privacy technology company, found: Many popular health, wellness and fitness apps share your data with third parties.

"I've made a choice that being that this was going to help me from a health perspective, that I would take the privacy risk," said Demargel.

How big of a risk could you be taking?

If apps are used to transmit information to your doctor, pharmacy, or any health care plan or provider, that data is confidential, protected under strict federal health information privacy laws. But if HIPAA doesn't apply, then it's up to each app to disclose its privacy policy.

This study, by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, reveals more than one-third of apps it reviewed sent data to parties it didn't disclose.

"I think that's troubling. In the health and fitness context, where consumers are used to thinking about sharing their information in the traditional provider context, I think they might be surprised about the collection of information that's happening," said Cora Tung Han with the Federal Trade Commission.

The same study found a majority of apps sent data over unencrypted connections. The FTC is on the case and warns app providers that they need to let users know exactly who's watching their every ride, tracking their pregnancy or their blood pressure.

"We do look at whether or not apps are honoring what they say in their privacy policies, and also whether or not they are living up to what they say to consumers in the app itself, about what they're doing with their information," explained Tung Han.

The Application Developers Alliance says it encourages app makers to be upfront about data collection. The organization was quite up front with us, admitting targeted ads are a significant reason for sharing information, as well as a significant source of revenue in the industry.

"So, if you have high blood pressure and you are telling the app, 'I have high blood pressure,' you should expect you're going to get advertisements for high blood pressure medicine," explained Jon Potter, with Application Developers Alliance.

Demargel says despite the risk of data sharing and unclear privacy policies, he's not putting the brakes on his beloved apps any time soon. He just follows his own rules of the road, which experts agree is a good way of gauging if an app is right for you.

"I just make sure if it's out there, it's something I'm comfortable with the whole world knowing," said Demargel.

Other privacy tips: If you can find an app's policy, be sure to read it carefully and make sure you feel comfortable with it.

The FTC is recommending app developers offer a "do not track" program similar to the one that exists for web browsing.

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