The truth about health and fitness apps

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Chances are you've downloaded a health or fitness app on your smartphone.

The industry is skyrocketing and expected to grow to 26 billion by 2017! Billions of people use them and enter information about everything from their diet, to health conditions, to even sexual activity. While these apps can have some amazing benefits, we've found your privacy could be in critical condition.

Avid biker Matt Demargel pedaled his way to losing 30 pounds and credits health and fitness apps for helping him get there!

"The apps have been very critical in helping me achieve my goals," Matt said.

Matt enters his height, weight, everything he eats, and how much he exercises into one app and uses another to track each bike ride.

But Matt realizes he's not the only one watching his progress. As research by Evidon, a privacy technology company, found: many popular health, wellness and fitness apps share your data with third parties.

"I've made a choice that this was going to help me from a health perspective, that I would take the privacy risk," Matt added.

How big of a risk could you be taking? If apps are used to transmit information to your doctor, pharmacy or any health care plan or provider, that data is confidential. It's protected under strict federal health information privacy laws (HIPAA).

But if HIPAA doesn't apply it's up to each app to disclose its privacy policy. A study by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse reveals more than a third of apps it reviewed sent data to parties it didn't disclose.

Cora Tung Han with the Federal Trade Commission said, "I think that's troubling. In the health and fitness context, where consumers are used to thinking about sharing their information in the traditional provider context, I think they might be surprised about the collection of information that's happening."

The same study found a majority of apps sent data over unencrypted connections. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating those claims.

The FTC warns app providers need to let users know exactly who's watching their every ride, tracking their pregnancy or their blood pressure.

"We do look at whether or not apps are honoring what they say in their privacy policies, and also whether or not they are living up to what they say to consumers in the app itself about what they're doing with their information," Cora stated.

The Application Developer's Alliance says it encourages app makers to be up-front about data collection. And the organization was quite up front with us: admitting targeted ads are a significant reason for sharing info and a significant source of revenue in the industry.

"So, if you have high blood pressure and you are telling the app, I have high blood pressure, you should expect you're going to get advertisements for high blood pressure medicine," said Jon Potter with the Application Developers Alliance.

Matt says despite the risk of data sharing and unclear privacy policies, he's not putting the brakes on his beloved apps anytime soon. He just follows his own rules of the road, which experts agree is a good way of gauging if an app is right for you.

"I just make sure if it's out there its something I'm comfortable with the whole world knowing," Matt stated.

If you can find an apps policy be sure to read it carefully and make sure you feel comfortable with it. The FTC is recommending app developers offer a "do not track" program similar to the one that exists for web browsing.

Copyright 2013 WMBF News. All rights reserved.