The phrase “If you’re not paying you’re the product” may be familiar in tech circles but is still sinking in for many users of free apps.
The latest sector under scrutiny for privacy issues is the burgeoning health apps market, with a report claiming that 20 of the most popular apps are sharing their users’ data with nearly 70 advertising and analytics companies.
The study was conducted by Evidon for the Financial Times, covering apps including MapMyRun, Lose It! and Period Tracker, noting that the first of those shares data with 11 third-party companies.
If you work in apps or tech, or follow these areas closely, this isn’t a surprise, and it may not even seem controversial. Analytics are an important tool for developers to learn from what their users are doing and improve their apps accordingly.
Advertising? Some degree of data sharing is inevitable, enabling advertisers to know that their display ads have been seen, or more sophisticated forms of ad targeting based on what people are doing within an app.
Developers know this and so do tech-savvy app users. But health-tracking apps are going mainstream and are being used by tens of millions of people who don’t know this – and may be alarmed by it.
Chalk it down as the latest reminder of the need for more transparency surrounding how app developers are sharing their users’ data, explaining what and why, so people can make an informed decision about whether to use that app.
Health and fitness apps are a particularly sensitive area for another reason – the keen interest from insurance companies in the data these developers are collecting on their users. The FT notes that big insurance firms such as Humana and Aetna are signing partnerships with health app developers.
The latter’s CarePass service makes this explicit – when it launched to the public in June, its partners included some of the biggest names in the health apps market: MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, Fitbit, Withings and others, with more than 100-million downloads combined.
The key there is that people sign up for CarePass and choose which apps to connect to it – they have control. Insurance firms should expect more scrutiny about any other less public deals they’re doing to flesh out data explicitly shared with them by customers.
Big data have big implications for the insurance industry and not just in healthcare. A number of companies have launched apps that track people’s driving with the promise of lowering their insurance payments if they drive carefully, for example.
The FT’s report is a valuable piece of research but it’s a timely reminder rather than a big scandal. App developers of all stripes should be as transparent as possible with their users about how their data is being shared, with platform owners such as Apple, Google and Microsoft also bearing responsibility for ensuring this. – © Guardian News & Media 2013
Stuart Dredge is a freelancer specialising in mobile technology