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article imageExperts: Apple HealthKit grows mHealth data privacy concerns Special

By Travis McKnight     Oct 3, 2014 in Technology
Apple's HealthKit for iPhone 6 and Apple Watch is increasing consumer adoption within the mobile healthcare industry, but experts are concerned about the data privacy issues that still remain unsolved.
Apple’s announcement that the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch are designed to effortlessly integrate mobile medical applications, via Apple’s HealthKit development software, has some industry analysts saying the company could have a huge impact on the mobile healthcare industry. Researchers suggest that in consequence of Apple’s ability to effectively navigate the consumer market, its adoption of the mobile health technology products—also known as mHealth—is going to propel consumer adoption rates, which in turn will increase innovations in the industry. However, experts are also worried about this surge in new mHealth products, and question how well-informed consumers are going to be about what types of risks they’ll be taking while using a mHealth device.
In the last several years, mobile healthcare products have been growing in popularity; however, even though in 2013 there were more than 43,000 health-related applications in the iTunes app store, more than 16,000 of which are directly related to patient health and treatment, questionable data security methods and unreliable readings have kept the devices limited largely to a clinical environment and fitness enthusiasts. But once the technology progresses and people implement the apps and devices into their daily routine, researchers say mHealth can push users to be healthier and solve the timeless struggle of getting patients interested in their day-to-day well-being.
“I think Apple has a wonderful way of designing something, and then somehow inspiring you to believe that it’ll change your life for the better,” says Eric Hekler, an Arizona State University assistant professor who does mHealth research. He says that outside of a clinical environment, other companies have struggled to engage consumers with wearable mHealth products and keep them engaged after several months of use. However, he says that Apple’s marketing approach might change that attitude.
But if that attitude does change and the average consumer begins adopting mHealth devices with fervor, it’s not necessarily a great thing because of where the industry currently is in terms of data privacy and usage policies.
Consumers might be in for a surprise about how much information their mobile medical devices constantly collect and share, says Domingo Guerra, president and co-founder of the app risk-management service Appthority. He points out that people are likely to not pay attention to the astonishing levels of data access many apps and devices obtain, and this educational shortcoming will lead to unwelcome surprises after realizing alongside sensitive health information, the app has access to their location, daily calendar, address book, texts, and call history—among other things.
On the positive side, this access to massive quantities and varieties of data gives developers insights on how to encourage people to adopt healthier habits, and reduce the need for costly medical attention on a wide scale by continually using wearable mHealth products, says Grant Leffingwell, a usability researcher at Battelle Memorial Institute. Yet despite the positive outcomes these devices have, Leffingwell says a lot of people are still concerned about potential long-term privacy violations associated with the data-mining approach currently being taken, because they don’t want corporations having immediate access to their day-to-day health and keeping things like their health coverage and life insurance rates in constant flux.
Consequently, Guerra, Hekler and Scott Sheaf, a senior research scientist at Battelle, all say that the industry is having conversations about how to educate users on the risks they’re taking when sharing data from mHealth devices because these tools offer up more personal information than anything similar. For Apple’s plunge into the medical industry to be successful, users have to trust that the app security methods the company incorporates into its device and HealthKit software will keep out hackers who want that sensitive information.
Hekler says that one disclosure approach industry analysts have been contemplating is trying to have completely open, non-decrypted data, and then to educate people about the data they're sharing and how that constitutes risks. For example, because it’s impossible to truly de-identify data collection points and meta-data, consumers would be given the option of clicking a box about what that they’re willing to share.
“All of this is not what’s currently done. Right now companies are running data, they’re selling it; that’s Google’s and Facebook’s business model,” Hekler says. “They take your data, they make it anonymous to the best of their ability, and then they come up with data-driven insights so they can market better to you. It’s scary, and I think it’s only recently that people realize how much data and how little privacy we truly have.”
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