Speech therapy apps face new questions about data collection from senators

In the early days of the pandemic, the demand for talk therapy apps skyrocketed. Prominent players, like BetterHelp and Talkspace, saw their downloads almost double through the first few months of lockdown in 2020. Now, lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) details how these companies protect the privacy of their users.

In letters to BetterHelp and Talkspace executives on Thursday, Warren called – along with sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) – the mental health companies to explain how their apps collect and use data retrieved from their patients. Legislators specifically requested information about the apps’ relationship with online advertisers, data brokers and social media platforms such as Facebook, as well as how these relationships are passed on to users.

After reviewing corporate privacy policies, senators wrote that “unfortunately, it seems possible that the policies used by your company and similar mental health platforms allow third-party Big Tech companies and data brokers who have shown remarkably poor interest in protecting vulnerable consumers and users, in order to access and use highly confidential personal and medical information. “

The letter follows a report released in May by the Mozilla Foundation, which warned consumers that online speech therapy apps could benefit from their mental health data. While both BetterHelp and Talkspace promise not to sell a user’s medical data without their consent, the researchers determined that personal information – such as a patient’s name, phone number and email – could still be sold or accessed by third parties for advertising and marketing purposes.

Although personal information is not as sensitive as medical data, it can still reveal intimate insights into a user’s life. E.g, Jesabel reported in 2020 that BetterHelp shared metadata for messages between a patient and therapist with Facebook. The data does not include the content of these messages, but can warn online marketers about how often and where a user can use the app.

“Even if you claim that this data is anonymized, it can still provide important and identifying information to third parties,” the senators wrote, referring to a 2019 MIT Technology Review study of how multiple pieces of anonymized data can be used to construct individual user identities.

Warren’s letter comes amid broader pressure to regulate data sales in the United States. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is set to mark comprehensive privacy legislation on Thursday. It’s the closest lawmakers have come to an agreement in the last few years. Last week, Warren introduced his own measure that would ban the sale of location and sensitive health data as the Supreme Court is ready to roll back Roe v. Wade.

While the pandemic played a major role in the popularization of therapy apps, companies also paid popular influencers like Shane Dawson and Philip DeFranco to advertise their apps on social media years earlier. This advertising campaign erupted into controversy in 2018 after fans accused YouTubers of taking advantage of their audience’s mental health problems with apps accused of hiring unqualified therapists, as reported by Atlantic Ocean.