As a category, mental health apps have worse privacy protections for users than most other types of apps, according to a new analysis from Mozilla researchers. Prayer apps also had poor privacy standards, the team found.
“The vast majority of mental health and prayer apps are exceptionally scary,” Jen Caltrider, Mozilla *Confidentiality not included leader of the guide, said in a statement. “They track, share, and leverage users’ innermost personal thoughts and feelings, such as moods, mental state, and biometric data.”
In the last iteration of guide, the team analyzed 32 mental health and prayer apps. Of those apps, 29 received a “Privacy not included” warning label, indicating that the team had concerns about how the app handled user data. The apps are designed for sensitive issues such as mental health issues, but collect large amounts of personal data under vague privacy policies, the team said in the statement. Most apps also had poor security practices, allowing users to create accounts with weak passwords despite the presence of deeply personal information.
The apps with the worst practices, according to Mozilla, are Better Help, Youper, Woebot, Better Stop Suicide, Pray.com and Talkspace. The AI chatbot Woebot, for example, says it collects user information from third parties and shares user information for advertising purposes. The Talkspace therapy provider collects transcripts of user conversations.
Mozilla’s team said in a statement that it contacted the companies behind the apps to ask about their policies on several occasions, but only three responded.
Traditional in-person mental health care can be hard to come by for many people — most therapists have long waiting lists, and managing insurance and costs can be a major barrier to care. The problem worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic when more and more people started to need care. Wanted mental health apps to fill this void by making resources more accessible and readily available. But that access could come with a privacy trade-off, according to the report.
“They operate like data-sucking machines with a sanity app veneer,” Mozilla researcher Misha Rykov said in a statement. “In other words: a wolf in sheep’s clothing”,