Lost in much of the news coverage of Apple's release of its Apple Watch was the inclusion of ResearchKit, an open source software framework that Apple designed for health and medical research. The principle behind ResearchKit is to help doctors and scientists gather research data for medical research should an Apple user decide to enroll in a research study.
Once Apple Watch users agree to the monitoring and submitting of their health information, that aggregated data could make it possible for all that data to be used for research that could save lives.
But what could be the privacy price for the sacrifice of all that information? Laws and regulations governing the medical industry's privacy policies do not apply to data shared in an app or device. On the contrary, that data is available to be sold, shared or stored in any way covered in Apple's privacy policies.
Concern Already There
When we reached Jennifer Kent, an analyst for Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates, she noted that Apple's ResearchKit software has the potential to transform the medical research space, particularly for disease states and conditions that receive little funding or that have relatively small patient populations.
"However," she said, "at the moment, health apps are not regulated in the same way that other medical software and devices are regulated," and that could become a problem for consumers.
Kent pointed out data from her firm's research finding that 35 percent of U.S. consumers in broadband households worry that their personal health information on health devices, apps, and portals will not remain confidential. She also noted that 15 percent of people who use connected health devices, such as heart rate monitors and even blood pressure cuffs, are concerned about companies selling their personal information to other companies.
Health information has been shown to be vulnerable to hackers recently, since such data brings far more on the black market than financial data. Apple has met with the Federal Trade Commission to discuss its commitment to protecting the information and identities of its customers, namely by prohibiting the sharing of collected data with third parties.
Also worth noting is that Apple has made ResearchKit an open-source system, which means the code used to develop the software is pubic information and that any bugs can be easily identified and reported immediately.
The Apple Watch and its attendant software could mean a new era of health research and access to data, but there will remain numerous questions about the risk of leaks, security breaches and hacks.
"As long as health apps only collect and transmit health data -- and do not attempt to interpret the data -- the apps are not currently regulated by the FDA," Kent told us. "Consumers already have difficulty evaluating the authenticity of health apps, and ResearchKit does not appear to add any curation or certification elements to address that oversight gap."