Apple Watch health apps may already be under FTC microscope

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Apple Watch users have complained that the heart-rate monitor won't work on their tattooed skin.

Credit: Apple

The Apple Watch doesn’t even have a release date and already federal officials are concerned about the health data the wearable will collect.

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly concerned that your private health information will be stored and used without your consent. According to Reuters, the agency has met with Apple several times over the last few months to make sure the company promises not to hand over health data to advertisers. The same applies to third-party developers working on health apps for Apple Watch and iOS 8’s HealthKit.

“We designed HealthKit with privacy in mind,” Apple spokesperson Trudy Muller told Reuters.

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But this isn’t the first time Apple’s health initiative has been questioned by government officials. Connecticut’s attorney general sought a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook shortly after the Apple Watch was announced, citing concern over how the company plans to protect user data. Attorney General George Jepsen was specifically curious how Apple will prevent app developers from misusing users’ health information.

The FTC is apparently asking the same question. Reuters’ sources said the agency is looking closely at developers making health apps. It's unclear if the agency is interrogating other wearable device-makers with the same level of intensity that it's examining Apple, but it should.

Apple put rules in place for developers building HealthKit into their apps before iOS 8 was released. Developers can’t use health information their apps collect “for any purpose other than providing health and/or fitness services.” Apps aren’t allowed to store your health data in the cloud. If you back up your iPhone using iTunes, you’ll have to turn on backup encryption or HealthKit information won’t be included in the backup. But the FTC remains concerned that Apple might not be able to police developers to ensure apps follow the rules.

Why this matters: Apple clearly designed HealthKit with privacy in mind from the outset, but that doesn’t mean regulators shouldn’t ask questions. Laws like HIPAA, which put in place restrictions on how medical information is disclosed, don’t apply to most of the data collected by health and fitness apps or activity trackers. That means companies aren’t exactly obligated to keep your step count a secret. But Apple is taking the lead and trying to set a standard for other wearable manufacturers and app developers. The most interesting part of the Reuters report: Apple may appoint an in-house health privacy exec to oversee compliance with HealthKit rules.

Are you worried about how iOS 8 and the Apple Watch will protect your health information? Let us know in the comments.

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