Pregnancy apps face scrutiny over privacy concerns

BabyCenter.com, a website owned by Johnson & Johnson that offers a free mobile pregnancy app, was named last week by the Senate Commerce Committee as one of 12 companies it contacted to assist with its ongoing investigation of data brokers and their collection of health information for use in advertising.

BabyCenter reaches 34 million expectant mothers globally and claims that 7 in 10 babies born last year in the United States were "BabyCenter babies." Given its wide reach, the San Francisco-based company is facing scrutiny for the information it collects and possibly shares with others. 

"Marketers consider pregnancy data to be some of the most lucrative, as having a baby usually sparks a family spending spree that can establish life-long brand loyalties," states an article in the Financial Times, which finds that the "massive migration of expectant and new mothers to smartphones has made mobile apps a new advertising opportunity for marketers and is raising fresh privacy concerns."

As the article points out, health-related mobile apps--particularly reproductive health apps that allow women to track menstruation cycles, pregnancy, and early baby development--have become very popular, with hundreds available for download. Not surprisingly, business-to-consumer companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and Target see health and pregnancy apps as effective platforms for running ads for tampons and a range of personal care and baby products.

"The frequent and routine use of such health trackers creates many opportunities to collect data and deliver ads," the article states. "Many developers rely on advertising in order to offer their apps to consumers for free, raising concern among privacy advocates about how the sensitive data collected by these apps is shared, and with whom. Though very strict federal standards exist in the U.S. regarding the exchange of health information, they do not apply to data collected by consumer health apps."

According to web analytics and privacy group Evidon, the top 20 most popular health, wellness and fitness apps, including WebMD Health, are actively sharing user data with as many as 70 third-party companies. Evidon's findings were featured in a recent Financial Times article which revealed that the third parties often use the information gathered from consumers who are tracking diseases, diets and bicycle trip distances to build profiles or display personalized ads.

To learn more:
- read the Committee announcement
- read the Financial Times article

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