ICO to probe women’s health apps amid security fears

iPhone mobile 2The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched a major review of apps that track periods and fertility following new figures that show more than half of women have concerns over data security.

In a poll commissioned by the regulator, women said transparency over how their data was used (59%) and how secure it was (57%) were bigger concerns than cost (55%) and ease of use (55%) when it came to choosing an app.

The survey showed a third of women have used apps to track periods or fertility.

The research also showed over half of people who use the apps believed they had noticed an increase in baby or fertility-related ads since signing up; while some found the ads positive, 17% described receiving them as “distressing”.

The ICO is now urging users to come forward to share their experiences in a call for evidence. It has also contacted companies who provide period and fertility tracking apps, including some of the most popular apps available to UK users, to find out how they are processing users’ personal information.

A focus of the ICO’s work is to identify whether there is the potential for harm and negative impact on users as a result. These harms could include unnecessarily complicated and confusing privacy policies, leaving users in the dark as to what they have consented to, apps requesting or storing unnecessary volumes of data, or users receiving upsetting targeted advertising that they did not sign up to.

The regulator will also be commissioning focus groups and user testing, and working with key stakeholders. National Data Guardian Dr Nicola Byrne and women’s health groups, including Wellbeing of Women, have offered their support.

ICO deputy commissioner of regulatory policy Emily Keaney said: “These statistics suggest data security is a significant concern for women when it comes to choosing an app to track their periods or plan or prevent pregnancy. That’s not surprising, given the incredibly sensitive and personal information involved.

“We want to make sure women can use these services with confidence, so we’re calling for people to share their experiences. This will help us understand whether there are areas that need improvement – from how easy it is to navigate privacy policies to whether people have experienced upsetting and unexpected targeted advertising. We also know some users feel these apps bring many benefits and we’d like to hear about these too.

“As with all health apps, we would expect organisations to safeguard their users’ privacy and have transparent policies in place. This review is intended to establish both the good and bad of how the apps are working. Once we have more information, we will explore next steps, but we will not hesitate to take regulatory action to protect the public if necessary.”

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