How private are mental health apps?

HIPAA laws may not cover all the data an app collects

The past year has been unlike any other — filled with stress, anxiety and sadness for millions of people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that many people are downloading mental health apps for support. But Consumer Reports warns, sharing deeply personal, sensitive information on some virtual platforms might not be as private as you think.
The past year has been unlike any other — filled with stress, anxiety and sadness for millions of people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that many people are downloading mental health apps for support. But Consumer Reports warns, sharing deeply personal, sensitive information on some virtual platforms might not be as private as you think.

The past year has been unlike any other — filled with stress, anxiety and sadness for millions of people. So perhaps it’s not surprising that many people are downloading mental health apps for support. But Consumer Reports warns, sharing deeply personal, sensitive information on some virtual platforms might not be as private as you think.

Mental health apps are becoming increasingly popular and offer a range of options, from guided meditations to appointments with a licensed therapist. But 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. And even when HIPAA rules do apply, they may not cover all the data an app collects.

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“What companies tell you about what they do with your data is often pretty vague and confusing and it’s usually buried in privacy policies, where it can be hard to find,” Thomas Germain, Consumer Reports Tech Editor, said.

Consumer Reports looked at several popular 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. And while it’s a common practice, 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. But they may be letting other companies know you’re using a mental health app,” Germain said.

Consumer Reports says you should know if and where your data is being shared.

“If you’re using a mental health app, be sure it’s clear about who will be administering your care. It’s worth seeking out licensed mental health professionals, and there are plenty of services that will connect you with them,” Germain said.

If you or someone you know needs life-saving help immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Consumer Reports contributed to this report.


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