Exploring the Far Side of Mobile Health: Information Security and Privacy of Mobile Health Applications on iOS and Android

JMIR mHealth uHealth, 3(1), doi:10.2196/mhealth.3672 .

Posted: 23 Jan 2015

See all articles by Tobias Dehling

Tobias Dehling

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Fangjian Gao

University of Cologne

Stephan Schneider

University of Cologne

Ali Sunyaev

University of Cologne

Date Written: January 19, 2015

Abstract

Background: Mobile health (mHealth) apps aim at providing seamless access to tailored health information technology and have the potential to alleviate global health burdens. Yet, they bear risks to information security and privacy because users need to reveal private, sensitive medical information to redeem certain benefits. Due to the plethora and diversity of available mHealth apps, implications for information security and privacy are unclear and complex.

Objective: The objective of this study was to establish an overview of mHealth apps offered on iOS and Android with a special focus on potential damage to users through information security and privacy infringements.

Methods: We assessed apps available in English and offered in the categories “Medical” and “Health & Fitness” in the iOS and Android App Stores. Based on the information retrievable from the app stores, we established an overview of available mHealth apps, tagged apps to make offered information machine-readable, and clustered the discovered apps to identify and group similar apps. Subsequently, information security and privacy implications were assessed based on health specificity of information available to apps, potential damage through information leaks, potential damage through information manipulation, potential damage through information loss, and potential value of information to third parties.

Results: We discovered 24,405 health-related apps (iOS; 21,953; Android; 2452). Absence or scarceness of ratings for 81.36% (17,860/21,953) of iOS and 76.14% (1867/2452) of Android apps indicates that less than a quarter of mHealth apps are in more or less widespread use. Clustering resulted in 245 distinct clusters, which were consolidated into 12 app archetypes grouping clusters with similar assessments of potential damage through information security and privacy infringements. There were 6426 apps that were excluded during clustering. The majority of apps (95.63%, 17,193/17,979; of apps) pose at least some potential damage through information security and privacy infringements. There were 11.67% (2098/17,979) of apps that scored the highest assessments of potential damages.

Conclusions: Various kinds of mHealth apps collect and offer critical, sensitive, private medical information, calling for a special focus on information security and privacy of mHealth apps. In order to foster user acceptance and trust, appropriate security measures and processes need to be devised and employed so that users can benefit from seamlessly accessible, tailored mHealth apps without exposing themselves to the serious repercussions of information security and privacy infringements.

Keywords: mobile health, mobile apps, data security, software and application security, patient privacy, health information technology

JEL Classification: L86

Suggested Citation

Dehling, Tobias and Gao, Fangjian and Schneider, Stephan and Sunyaev, Ali, Exploring the Far Side of Mobile Health: Information Security and Privacy of Mobile Health Applications on iOS and Android (January 19, 2015). JMIR mHealth uHealth, 3(1), doi:10.2196/mhealth.3672 . . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2553740

Tobias Dehling (Contact Author)

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology ( email )

Kaiserstraße 12
Karlsruhe, Baden Württemberg 76131
Germany

Fangjian Gao

University of Cologne ( email )

Albertus-Magnus-Platz
Cologne, 50923
Germany

Stephan Schneider

University of Cologne ( email )

Albertus-Magnus-Platz
Cologne, 50923
Germany

Ali Sunyaev

University of Cologne ( email )

Albertus-Magnus-Platz
Cologne, 50923
Germany

HOME PAGE: http://www.isq.uni-koeln.de

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