How to protect your privacy when using mental health apps – NPR | Hot Mobile Press

According to some experts, potential users can take certain steps to ensure their data is better protected when using online therapy apps.

Jenny Kane/AP

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Jenny Kane/AP

According to some experts, potential users can take certain steps to ensure their data is better protected when using online therapy apps.

Jenny Kane/AP

Online therapy has become a booming industry over the past few years, but with this growth, questions have arisen as to how well this type of company protects the privacy of their patients.

Most recently in June, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Ron Wyden asked two leading online therapy companies, BetterHelp and Talkspace, to provide information on how they handle user data and their privacy practices.

The Democratic senators said they were concerned the companies could leave their patients “vulnerable to exploitation by big tech platforms and other online actors.”

BetterHelp markets itself as the world’s largest online therapy service, with nearly 2 million users, according to its website. The company works with thousands of therapists who can communicate with patients via phone, text or video chat.

However, a 2020 investigation by Jezebel found that BetterHelp information was shared with Facebook, including metadata of messages between patients and therapists. According to Jezebel, Facebook could also see the duration, approximate location and time people spent on BetterHelp. (BetterHelp is an NPR funder.)

The nonprofit Mozilla Foundation has also raised concerns about BetterHelp and Talkspace’s privacy policies.

Talkspace tells NPR that it has one of the most comprehensive privacy policies in the industry and that it is collecting information to fulfill the senators’ request.

Mary Potter, the company’s data protection officer, added that communication between patients and therapists takes place in “a fully secured, encrypted private ‘room’. We believe that our technology fully satisfies [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] Privacy and security requirements and protocols. For the avoidance of doubt, we do not sell user information to third parties.”

BetterHelp told NPR that it is committed to privacy and security. A spokesman said the company “has built state-of-the-art technology, operations and infrastructure to protect the information hosted on our platform. Everything BetterHelp members share with their advisor is private, secure and encrypted.”

Because online psychiatric services offer many people a convenient alternative to traditional methods of in-person therapy, NPR asked digital privacy experts to consider what you should know about protecting your privacy when using these types of platforms.

The privacy tips here may not just apply to online therapy services, but experts say these steps can help with privacy related to therapy apps as well.

It starts with your phone’s settings

“Go through the privacy settings [your] smartphone operating system. Every time you download an app, go through its privacy settings. Turn on any options that allow you to limit how apps track you,” he said Arvind Narayanan, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University.

Narayanan said you should pay attention any time you see a screen asking for permissions.

“Don’t just tap the default option. If you try to limit tracking, many apps will try to convince you that you’re missing out. These are generally misleading or deceptive claims,” ​​he said NPR.

Opt out of personalized ads and cross-app tracking

John Davisson, director of litigation and senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that while the steps taken to protect your privacy depend primarily on the specific app, users can opt out of personalized ads on Google and disable cross-app tracking.

“This prevents the data that you enter into one application from being correlated or merged with data that has been uploaded into another application,” Davisson told NPR.

If you’re signed into your Google account, set the “Ads Personalization” slider to “OFF”. here. According to Google, this deactivation applies to all your registered devices if they are recognized as registered.

And if you’ve signed out of your Google Account, you can opt out of personalized ads across the web and Google Search from the options here.

You can also opt out of personalized ads on Apple devices, Android devices, and Facebook and Twitter by following the steps below.

Deactivate your mobile advertising ID

According to Davisson, users can also disable their mobile advertising ID, which limits the ways companies can collect your data, location, search history, and browsing history.

For iPhone users, go to Settings > Privacy > Tracking to see if there are any apps you previously gave access to track. Switch the slider to “Off” where “Allow apps to request tracking” so that the button is greyed out.

For Android users, go to Settings > Privacy > Ads > tap on “Delete advertising ID”. An older version of Android may offer an option to opt out of personalized advertising instead.

Read an app’s “Nutrition Label” carefully

Davisson says reading apps’ “privacy labels” can give potential users a clearer sense of what types of data apps collect and how it’s being used.

According to Apple, these labels are a way to more transparently explain how apps handle user data.

You can find Apple’s nutrition labels by scrolling down on an app’s page in the App Store, where you’ll see an “App Privacy” section.

Google Play rolled out a similar label for Android users, appearing on some apps since April.

These labels don’t always tell the full story, however, as Apple and Google say developers report this information themselves.

Other Measures

Specifically for BetterHelp, the Mozilla Foundation recommends not connecting the app to any third-party social media accounts or tools, and not sharing medical information when connected to any of these accounts. “Press that Click the “shred” button next to any message you’ve sent if you no longer want it to appear in your account,” Mozilla’s privacy guide says.

Regarding Talkspace, Mozilla recommends: “Do not authorize the use or disclosure of your medical information. If you have already provided them (or if you are unsure), withdraw them by emailing Medical information, including psychotherapy notes, may be shared for marketing purposes.”

You can also ask Talkspace to limit disclosures to your insurance company by emailing

Another option for privacy-conscious individuals is to use a virtual private network. VPNs are used to disguise your computer’s location and block an internet service provider from seeing the websites you visit.

But Narayanan said he believes VPNs are more cumbersome and less effective than other methods of protecting your data and privacy online.

Experts say online privacy remains largely beyond the control of individuals

“Unfortunately, the lack of strict regulation of apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace has forced people to make a very difficult choice between getting psychological support and knowing that their privacy will be protected,” Davisson said.

Davisson stressed that people’s individual digital footprints are too complex to monitor and protect their own data in any context.

“There’s a significant gap in privacy and regulation that’s allowing these types of apps to pull through,” he said said.

Federal privacy laws vary by sector, and HIPAA is limited to healthcare plans, healthcare clearing houses, and healthcare providers, Davisson said.

Federal law tries to protect patients’ personal health information from being disclosed without their knowledge or consent, but Davisson said that doesn’t typically apply to mental health apps or other health apps like period trackers.

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