The phrase “If you’re not paying, you’re the product” may be familiar within tech circles, but the message 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, from enabling advertisers to know merely that their display ads have been seen, through to 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. The problem is that health-tracking apps are going mainstream, and being used by tens of millions of people who don’t know this, and may be freaked out by it.
Chalk it down as the latest reminder of the need for more transparency around 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 like Humana and Aetna are signing partnerships with health app developers.
The latter’s CarePass service making this explicit: when it launched to the public in June, partners included some of the biggest names in the health apps market: MapMyFitness, RunKeeper, Fitbit, Withings and others, with more than 100m 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 has big implications for the insurance industry, and not just around 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. Or, at least, part of the bigger picture around who has access to our data and what they’re sharing it for.
App developers of all stripes should be as transparent as possible with their users about how their data is being shared, with platform owners like Apple, Google and Microsoft also bearing responsibility for ensuring this.
The health-apps / insurance issue isn’t just about those apps’ privacy policies now, though. Venture capital money is flowing into this market: in August alone, Fitbit raised $43m and MyFitnessPal raised $18m for example.
Funding now means consolidation later: if your favourite fitness apps take off, they may be acquired by bigger fish in the healthcare or insurance industry in the next few years, and if they fail, they may also be snapped up.
What happens to your data then? And of course, this is a question that can be asked about pretty much any free app or online service.
Which brings us neatly back to “If you’re not paying, you’re the product”. But it’s rare to see an option with these apps to pay for more control over how your data is used – the usual upsell is for premium features.
One final point: data-sharing is actually one of the strengths of the health apps market, in the way that these apps can work together.
Track your food intake in MyFitnessPal, track your exercise in RunKeeper, use a Fitbit monitor to track your daily steps, and get them all to squirt data into the Fitbit app for a single place to track your efforts to be healthier.
This is just one among many possible permutations of apps and gadgets, but the point is that these apps are often stronger together, and that this relies on sharing your data between them.
That’s more explicit sharing though: you connect the apps to one another. The Evidon/FT study should encourage us to pay more attention and ask more questions about how our data is being shared in other ways by these apps now, and in the future.