When Remote Therapy Isn’t as Private as It Seems

As our lives become increasingly remote, it’s worth considering the cost of convenience — to visit family over Zoom, proctor a class online, or, as the New York Times reports, talk to a licensed therapist via chat app.

On Friday, Times reporters Kashmir Hill and Aaron Krolik published disturbing testimonies from former employees at Talkspace, a telemedicine startup allowing patients to seek therapy “in a private, text-based chat room.” For a fee, clients can see one of thousands of licensed therapists over text, audio, and video messages. The company’s website claims to make therapy “available and affordable for all,” and amid today’s pandemic, these mobile services are understandably appealing.

However, according to the Times, Talkspace employees violated patient privacy on numerous occasions, reviewing transcripts from therapy sessions to improve the app’s functionality and target new customers. The company’s privacy policy is opaque, and technically allows it to use anonymized customer data for product and research purposes. However, a former Talkspace therapist told the Times that “after she provided a client with links to therapy resources outside of Talkspace, a company representative contacted her, saying she should seek to keep her clients inside the app.”

“They said it was private, but it wasn’t,” the therapist added.

Talkspace isn’t the only telemedicine service to be scrutinized for privacy failures. A suite of fertility apps have repeatedly been accused of selling women’s most private health data. But data insecurity is an especially acute issue right now, during quarantines and social distancing, as people become more reliant on — and accustomed to — remote services.

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