Health-tracking apps privacy: Houston doctors wary over ad-supported, third-party trackers


HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Three experts who spoke to ABC13 Friday warned about using websites and apps to track your health and fitness.

They said not to use programs developed by outside developers if you want your privacy to remain that way.

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“You have no privacy,” said Dean Sittig, Ph.D., of UTHealth Houston.

Sittig said information being entered into your online patient portal, which is developed by your healthcare provider, is protected by HIPAA laws.

Apps made by outside developers, such as ones that track your fitness, cycle, or heartrate, are not.

“You’re opening yourself up for someone to learn about you,” said Sittig on using these trackers.

He added that free apps tend to be the worst at selling your data because that’s how they make money.

Dr. Hardeep Singh at Baylor College of Medicine says he doesn’t use these apps, but tells anyone looking for information on an app or website should go to reputable sources.

“Trusted websites and government websites would be the way to go,” said Singh. “I would be concerned about some of the chat boxes and websites that are out there giving diagnoses to patients.”

Both doctors said WebMD gives trusted information, but it does use your history on the site to target advertisements towards your various ailments or concerns.

Singh and Sittig agree that misinformation, not privacy, is their biggest issue when it comes to services created by outside developers.

“Like if your doctor suggests, ‘Here’s a good app to monitor your pregnancy,’ that would be a good way to get it,” said Sittig. “As opposed to going into the app store and typing in pregnancy and just picking one that comes up.”

Additionally, an Associated Press article on the ABC News website cited the fear some women have about their internet history being used against them should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

Their concern is whether or not officials or vigilantes could use that information against them.

Chris Bronk, Ph.D., who is a professor in the University of Houston School of Technology, didn’t rule it out, but said it wasn’t an immediate concern.

“I don’t think it’s a grave concern, but it’s definitely something that’s possible,” said Bronk. “There’s a lot of information out there, but being prosecuted on the basis of an internet search would probably have to be something that looked a lot more like an act of terrorism or a crime.”

Follow Chaz Miller on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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