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Protecting Private Health and Location Data

Protecting Private Health and Location Data

Many companies make it their business to acquire and sell the personal data of Michiganders - often without explicit consent or consumer knowledge. These companies can reap massive profits by peddling private information – including health and location data. Largely unregulated by federal law, these business practices have the potential to pose real dangers if the data gathered is obtained by an outside entity that wishes to use it for reasons unrelated to the company or service it offers.

Consumers should think carefully about what personal data they want to allow a company to access. Smart phone applications and programs can collect precise information about a person’s whereabouts. Sometimes, the fine print in the user agreements for these applications and programs give companies the right to sell personal information to other companies that can make it available to advertisers, or whoever wants to pay to obtain it.

Individuals using an application or program to track personal information should know who has access to that information and how they are allowed to use it.  When downloading and installing programs and applications on personal computers and smart devices, users should review the usage terms and privacy policy in detail. Review things like what information the program collects, who has access to the information, how the information is stored, and how and with whom the company shares information.  

Given the increasing attempts to erode bodily autonomy, Michiganders should very carefully review the data policies for applications and programs that hold data related to personal health data, including those that track pregnancy, fertility, or menstrual cycles.  It is extremely important that people make informed decisions regarding how private health and location data are used.  Millions of people use applications to help track their menstrual cycles, logging and storing intimate data about their reproductive health. Because that data can reveal stops and starts for periods, ovulation, and pregnancy, there is legal concern the information could become evidence if abortion is criminalized.

Michiganders must be vigilant, as history shows tech companies are playing fast and loose with your private data. In 2019, it was revealed that one period tracker was sharing data on some users’ family planning with their employers. Moreover, in 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled with a period-tracking application after the company promised to keep users’ data private but then shared it with companies, including Facebook and Google. A recent investigation by Consumer Reports found issues in the way five popular period-tracking applications handle sensitive user data, including sending it to third parties for targeted advertising.

Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission on how to protect personal data:

  1. Compare options on privacy. When considering a health app, ask some key questions:
    • Why does the app collect information?
    • How does the app share that information – and with whom
    • Then choose the app with the level of privacy  preferred.
  2. Take care of personal information.
    • Do app settings let the user control the health information the app collects and shares?
    • Is the app up to date?
  3. Know the risks.
    • Are the app's services worth risking personal information getting into the wrong hands?
  4. Report concerns. Do you think a health app shared personal information without permission?

Michiganders are urged to review all usage terms when installing applications and programs.  Make it a priority to protect your privacy.

For more information, please review additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.