How Mental Health Apps Are Handling Personal Information

Article by Erika Solis: “…Before diving into the privacy policies of mental health apps, it’s necessary to distinguish between “personal information” and “sensitive information,” which are both collected by such apps. Personal information can be defined as information that is “used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity.” Sensitive information, however, can be any data that, if lost, misused, or illegally modified, may negatively affect an individual’s privacy rights. While health information not under HIPAA has previously been treated as general personal information, states like Washington are implementing strong legislation that will cover a wide range of health data as sensitive, and have attendant stricter guidelines.

Legislation addressing the treatment of personal information and sensitive information varies around the world. Regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, for example, require all types of personal information to be treated as being of equal importance, with certain special categories, including health data having slightly elevated levels of protection. Meanwhile, U.S. federal laws are limited in addressing applicable protections of information provided to a third party, so mental health app companies based in the United States can approach personal information in all sorts of ways. For instance, Mindspa, an app with chatbots that are only intended to be used when a user is experiencing an emergency, and Elomia, a mental health app that’s meant to be used at any time, don’t make distinctions between these contexts in their privacy policies. They also don’t distinguish between the potentially different levels of sensitivity associated with ordinary and crisis use.

Wysa, on the other hand, clearly indicates how it protects personal information. Making a distinction between personal and sensitive data, its privacy policy notes that all health-based information receives additional protection. Similarly, Limbic labels everything as personal information but notes that data, including health, genetic, and biometric, fall within a “special category” that requires more explicit consent than other personal information collected to be used…(More)”.

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