Report Finds Some Health Apps Aren’t Healthy for Your Privacy

One of the big features in today’s Internet-of-Things-centric world is the ability to effortlessly track and record health-related data. In fact, some companies make a lot of money providing users with tools, gadgets and social interfaces to more accurately track fitness and overall health. The abundance of these sensors has created a small cottage industry around health and health tracking apps, but not all apps are created equally — and not all are created with the user’s health in mind.

A recent report from the AV-TEST Institute found that Android users may be unintentionally leaking personal data about their health and fitness, even as they go out of their way to track their well being. The Institute surveyed a number of random health-related applications, all free on the Google Play Store, Android’s Official App Store, and found that 80 percent of health-related applications lack a privacy policy suitable for today’s regulations, despite handling sensitive data. The survey also found a good number of applications request or require access to data or sensors not core to the purposes of health-tracking, transmit data in an insecure fashion, and uses ad tracking to, well, sell ads.

As it turns out, some health-centric applications aren’t healthy for your privacy. That can pose a few problems for users, like potential identity theft and targeted advertisements designed for people suffering from unique ailments. This data could also be collected and sold to insurance companies, who could, theoretically, raise or lower rates based on a user’s monitored activity.

Just as troubling is the number of applications requesting access to device or user data not relevant to their apparent purpose. For example, AV-TEST reports that 12 of their tested applications requested direct access to the device camera, seven requested access to the microphone and three, surprisingly, required “full telephony functions of the smartphone.”

These aren’t innocent requests, either, like requesting access to a photo library for sharing photos over social media. For example, one application used to track menstruation cycles, “wanted to be informed of the whereabouts of its female users,” according to AV-TEST.

This problem, however, isn’t unique to health applications. A lot of programs often request access to data or functions they simply have no need for. It’s an issue all of us need to be aware of when first using a service.

So, what should you look for when considering a health-related application? Well, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Research the developer. Every application has a developer listed next to its name. Take the time to do a few minutes of research to evaluate the developer’s trustworthiness. Things to look out for are the developer’s library of applications and how many people use their products. If the application isn’t from a known or respected developer, consider giving it a pass.
  • Check the reviews. Almost all app stores today have a review section. Take the time to read the reviews, but keep an eye out for reviews that are almost one-to-one replicas of each other. If you find them, it may mean the developer is paying for positive reviews. If you suspect that’s the case, then avoid the application or look for a neutral third-party review on a separate website to evaluate the app’s trustworthiness.
  • Evaluate what it wants access to. Almost all health applications will request access to additional sensors and features on your phone, but not all of them are necessary and some may even indicate maleficence. Be wary of applications requesting access to the full suite of features found on your device, especially if they’re not relevant to the application’s purpose.
  • Keep software up-to-date. The newest version of an application is always the safest, as developers patch issues with every update. So make sure to keep all of your apps and software up-to-date to ensure your personal data is secure. Also, to add an additional layer of protection across all of your devices, use a comprehensive security solution like McAfee LiveSafe so that you feel in control of all your personal data at all times.

And, of course, stay on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats by following me and @McAfee_Home on Twitter, and ‘Like’ us on Facebook.

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