Talk therapy apps face new questions about data collection from senators

At the start of the pandemic, the demand for talk therapy apps skyrocketed. Major players like BetterHelp and Talkspace saw their downloads almost double in the first few months of the lockdown in 2020. Now, lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are asking for details about how these companies protect their users’ privacy.

In letters to BetterHelp and Talkspace executives on Thursday, Warren — along with sens Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) — asked mental health companies to explain how their apps collect and use the data obtained from them. Patient. Specifically, the lawmakers requested information about the app’s relationships with online advertisers, data brokers and social media platforms such as Facebook, as well as how those relationships are disclosed to users.

Reviewing the companies’ privacy policies, the senators wrote that “Unfortunately, it appears possible that the policies used by your company and similar mental health platforms allow third-party Big Tech firms and data brokers to who have shown significantly less interest in protecting vulnerable users and users, in accessing and using highly confidential personal and medical information.”

The letter follows a report published in May by the Mozilla Foundation, which warned consumers that online talk therapy apps could benefit from their mental health data. While both BetterHelp and Talkspace promise not to sell a user’s medical data without their consent, the researchers determined that personal information – such as patient name, phone number and email – may still be used by third parties for advertising and marketing purposes. Can be sold or accessed.

Although personal information is not as sensitive as medical data, it can reveal intimate insights into a user’s life. For example, Jezebel In 2020 it was reported that BetterHelp shared metadata of messages between a patient and a physician with Facebook. The data does not include the content of these messages, but it can alert online marketers about how often and where a user can use the app.

“Even if you claim that this data is anonymised, it may still provide important and identifying information to third parties,” the senators wrote, citing 2019. MIT Technology Review Study how multiple pieces of anonymized data can be used to create individual user identities.

Warren’s letter comes amid a wider push to regulate data sales in the US. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is set to mark the sweeping privacy legislation on Thursday. This is the closest MPs deal has in the last few years. Last week, Warren introduced his own measure that would ban the sale of location and sensitive health data as the Supreme Court prepares to roll back Roe vs. Wade,

While the pandemic played a major role in popularizing therapy apps, companies paid popular influencers like Shane Dawson and Philippe DeFranco to advertise their apps on social media years ago. That ad campaign ran into controversy in 2018, when fans accused YouTubers of taking advantage of their viewers’ mental health issues with apps accused of hiring unqualified therapists, as reported the Atlantic,

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