Smartphone apps are changing the way people manage health. They help people monitor symptoms and tailor treatment accordingly. But the data produced by these apps is private and there is fear it can be misused. Deborah Estrin, director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, University of California, US talks to Vibha Varshney about the need to protect privacy of people who use these apps. Edited Excerpts:
The health apps currently available on smartphones produce limited data. What could be the privacy issues with the limited data?
The work on personal health apps has just begun. Many apps are in the research phase and these are expected to produce data that would be worth mining. People tend to feed in more personal information in these apps than they would provide to a doctor. This is the right time to ensure that individuals have control over the sharing and mining of their data, as privacy is difficult to maintain retroactively.
Examples of the health problems where privacy could be an issue
Apps that deal with mental illnesses like depression are good examples of situation where people would prefer privacy. Then, there is an app that helps people deal with post traumatic stress disorder. Other apps include UbiFit which helps individuals to self-monitor their physical activity and incorporate regular and varied activity into everyday life. Asthmapolis has a GPS tracker attached and provides information on the places one needs to use inhalers. These apps do produce meaningful data, but also data that an individual might not want to share in raw form.
How can such data be used?
Clinicians can for the first time observe the variability of symptoms and side effects and thereby help titrate and personalise medications and other aspects of care/treatment.
How do we protect the data?
It needs to be ensured that personal health data is shared selectively and not automatically. For example, personal health vaults can be made where the data is available only to the patient. These would need to be built in the apps.
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