Senators Question Mental Health Apps Over Data Policies

Democratic lawmakers are questioning the CEOs of mental health apps BetterHelp and TalkSpace about their privacy practices, including whether they share sensitive patient information with data brokers and tech companies.

In letters sent this week to the top executives at both companies, lawmakers say there is "mounting evidence" that mental health apps -- which grew in popularity during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic -- are "collecting, mining, and disseminating private information" about consumers.

“We have long been concerned about the misuse of personal data by Big Tech companies and unscrupulous data brokers, especially for the purpose of microtargeting vulnerable populations,” Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) say write.  “Unfortunately, it appears possible that the policies used by your company and similar mental health platforms allow third-party Big Tech firms and data brokers, who have shown remarkably little interest in protecting vulnerable consumers and users, to access and use highly confidential personal and medical information.”

Warren and the others cited several outside reports, including a February 2021 paper by Consumer Reports, which found that mental health apps were sharing some data with outside companies, and a 2020 Jezebel report that mental health apps were sharing “anonymized” data for analytics purposes.

“Even though you claim this data is anonymized, it can still provide third parties with important and identifying information,” the lawmakers say.

They are asking the companies to answer a host of questions about their data policies by July 6.

Among other questions, the lawmakers are asking what information the apps sent to third parties, what financial arrangements the companies have with those outside parties, what steps the apps take to anonymize data and whether consumers can opt out of having their data shared.

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