Is your health data safe on the Apple Watch? The FTC investigates

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As wearable makers continue to increase their focus on health metrics, the line between a medical device and a consumer device is getting ever finer. It’s a tightrope walk for many manufacturers, and Apple is no exception to the rule. Now that it’s unveiled the Apple Watch for all to see and boasted about the abilities of HealthKit to keep track of all your metrics, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is asking Apple tough questions about user security.

The FTC seeks assurance from Apple that it will not store or use sensitive health data without the user’s consent, two unnamed sources told Reuters. The sources are aware of the FTC’s thoughts on the issue of user safety with the Apple Watch and say that Apple has met with FTC officials multiple times in recent months. During the meetings, Apple stressed its commitment to protecting users’ data and its strict policy against selling health data to third-parties, including marketers or third-party developers. The third-party developers with which Apple works are also forbidden to sell users’ data.

In order to assure regulators that sensitive health data will be protected, Apple has been in conversation with representatives from countries all around the world to talk security. “We’ve been very encouraged by their support,” Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller told Reuters, adding that, “We designed HealthKit with privacy in mind.”

Although Apple’s competitors like Samsung and Google have also invested heavily in wearables and health-related data, the FTC is paying even closer attention to the Apple Watch and HealthKit. Since none of the health apps or wearables from Samsung, Google, or Apple are classified as medical devices, none of the apps that are associated with them are regulated by the privacy rules that make up HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Nonetheless, the FTC is concerned that the data catalogued by these apps is too sensitive and wants to ensure that users’ health information stay private. Hence its recent inquiries into the space.

A recent study conducted by the FTC found that developers of 12 mobile health and fitness apps share user information with 76 different parties, including advertisers. The agency was sufficiently alarmed by these results to start asking Apple and others directly what their policies are on user data. Apple is working with data protection lawyer Marcy Wilder and may hire a health privacy expert. Apple also tightened its privacy policy for HealthKit and now forbids third-party developers from sharing user data with advertisers and others.

So far it seems that Apple is setting a very high standard for user security, especially with HealthKit. The FTC applauded Apple’s efforts in the past, but the agency will likely continue to ask tough questions, as the Apple Watch’s launch looms closer on the horizon.