Talk therapy apps face new questions over data collection from senators

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

In letters to executives from BetterHelp and Talkspace 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 data. data collected from their patients Specifically, lawmakers requested information about the apps’ relationships with online advertisers, data brokers, and social media platforms like 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 Big Tech companies and third-party data brokers, who have shown remarkably little interest in protecting vulnerable consumers. and users, to access and use 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 a patient’s name, phone number, and email, could still be sold or accessed by third parties for advertising and marketing purposes.

While personal information is not as sensitive as medical data, it can still reveal intimate information about a user’s life. For example, jezebel reported in 2020 that BetterHelp shared the metadata of messages between a patient and a therapist with Facebook. The data does not include the content of these messages, but could alert online marketers to how often and where a user might be using the app.

“Although you claim that this data is anonymous, it can still provide third parties with important and identifying information,” the senators wrote, citing a 2019 MIT Technology Review study of how multiple pieces of anonymous data could be used to construct individual user identities.

Warren’s letter comes amid a broader push to regulate data sales in the United States. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is set to flag sweeping privacy legislation on Thursday. It’s the closest lawmakers have come to an agreement in recent years. Last week, Warren introduced his own measure that would ban the sale of sensitive location and health data, as the Supreme Court is poised to reverse. Roe vs. Wade.

While the pandemic played a big role in popularizing therapy apps, companies also paid popular influencers like Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco to advertise their apps on social media years earlier. That ad campaign erupted into controversy in 2018 after fans accused YouTubers of profiting from their audience’s mental health issues with apps accused of hiring unqualified therapists, as reported by the atlantic.

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