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. The prayer apps also had poor privacy standards, the team found.
“The vast majority of prayer and mental health apps are exceptionally creepy,” Jen Caltrider, Mozilla *Privacy not included guide lead, said in a statement. “They track, share, and capitalize on users’ innermost personal thoughts and feelings, such as mood, state of mind, and biometric data.”
In the last iteration of The Guide, the team analyzed 32 prayer and mental health apps. Of those apps, 29 received a “privacy not included” warning label, indicating that the team was concerned about how the app handled user data. The apps are designed for sensitive issues like mental health conditions, 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 containing deeply personal information.
The apps with the worst practices, according to Mozilla, are Better Help, Youper, Woebot, Better Stop Suicide, Pray.com and Talkspace. AI chatbot Woebot, for example, says it collects information about users from third parties and shares user information for advertising purposes. Transcripts of users’ chats are collected by the Talkspace therapy provider.
The Mozilla team said in a statement that it has contacted the companies behind these apps to ask about their policies several times, but only three have responded.
Traditional in-person mental health care can be hard to find for many people: Most therapists have long waiting lists, and navigating insurance and costs can be a significant barrier to care. The problem got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic when more and more people started needing care. Mental health apps wanted to fill that gap by making resources more accessible and readily available. But that access could come with a privacy trade-off, the report shows.
“They operate like data-sucking machines with a mental health app veneer,” Mozilla researcher Misha Rykov said in a statement. “In other words: a wolf in sheep’s clothing,”