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FTC warns about mobile health data gathering

Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill, speaking in Washington on Wednesday, expressed concern about the way apps on smartphones and mobile devices are siphoning sensitive health data, and how some of that information may then be shared with third parties.

After a panel discussion hosted by US political site The Hill, Brill told Reuters many companies now prefer to focus on how data is used, because that is where "the rubber hits the road when it comes to patient harm". Developers should give consumers more tools and "robust choice mechanisms" before any sensitive data is collected and stored.

"We don't know where that information ultimately goes," Brill told the panel. "It makes consumers uncomfortable." She has put pressure on Congress to pass laws prohibiting the collection of personal information under false pretences.

The debate around the gathering of consumer data is intensifying as Silicon Valley tech companies take a more active interest in mobile health. Apple and Google revealed new health-focused services for app developers in recent months, dubbed Google Fit and HealthKit.

Brill's comments followed a May report in which the FTC revealed the results of a study of mobile health-app developers, which found a good portion collect consumer health data and give it to third-party entities.

The study, which focused on data-sharing in relation to 12 mobile health and fitness apps, found developers were sharing users' information with 76 different parties, including marketers.

In an interview with Reuters, Brill stressed that "no one is talking about new regulations".

The agency has spent years communicating best practices for the rapidly emerging mobile health industry to follow, she said. FTC commissioners have also previously stressed that health data is sensitive and requires special protections.

Brill pointed to FTC initiatives like Reclaim Your Name, which would give consumers more tools to reassert control over their health data.

Some advocacy groups, like the Association for Competitive Technology, which represents application developers, fear innovation could be stunted if information collection was curtailed.

"The mobile health industry needs to educate the FTC about why collecting health data can provide better health outcomes," Morgan Reed said after the panel. "If we fail to do this, the commission could take action that would devastate app developers."

At its developer conference in June in San Francisco, Apple unveiled HealthKit, which will pull data together, such as blood pressure and weight, now collected by healthcare apps and devices on the iPhone and iPad.

Brill declined to comment on whether the FTC is concerned about HealthKit, as the service has yet to be released to the public.

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