Media spotlight without facts makes mHealth privacy a tougher task

Privacy is a huge concern in mobile healthcare, which makes protecting consumer data and providing consumers control over data something everyone--from the federal agency level to mHealth app and device makers--cares about.

It's not surprising, then, that a U.S. senator brought the issue into the media spotlight, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to stop device makers from allegedly selling data and enacting an "opt out" for consumers. The lawmaker, Chuck Schumer (D), is obviously acting in best faith and striving to protect his constituents.

That's a good thing.

But what's not good is that Schumer put the focus on Fitbit, one of the veteran fitness tracker manufacturers, saying the company was selling its user data. Fitbit immediately responded, stating it doesn't sell its data and that to do so would be against its privacy policy. Fitbit added that it would like to "work with" the senator on the issue.

Schumer is correct in claiming that some companies are selling healthcare-related data. An FTC study published in May revealed some mobile health and fitness application makes are sharing user data with third-party vendors, including device use and personal fitness information. The study focused on data sharing in relation to 12 mobile apps and it was determined data was being shared with 76 third-party vendors. Eighteen of the 76 apps were collecting specific device data, such as phone's unique device identifier, media access control address and its international mobile station equipment identity. Data also included names, usernames and email addresses, as well as medical symptom searches, gender, diet habits, exercise activity, ZIP codes and geo-location.

But Fitbit wasn't publicly noted as being on that list. To name a vendor without providing verification of such activity not only clouds the issue, it can cause unnecessary concern and consumer backlash. Schumer and other lawmakers must be more careful when pointing fingers, and need to get a bit more knowledgeable about what federal agencies are doing when it comes to data protection and consumer privacy.

The FTC is already taking a proactive stance on the issue of healthcare data privacy. Last month, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill said she supports new laws for boosting healthcare data privacy and protection measures, although she added that the agency is not mulling any new regulations on mobile health and fitness applications. The FTC is urging app developers to give consumers more choices when it comes to data sharing and more tools before confidential data is collected and stored.

Lawmakers and their legislative staffs must hold back on putting big media spotlights on critical issues such as mHealth data and privacy until they have all the facts. Otherwise, complex issues such as providing healthcare privacy and consumer protection, becomes an even a harder task. - Judy (@JudyMottl and @FierceHealthIT)