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Apple’s depression-detecting iPhone tool butts heads with its privacy-first marketing

The news: Apple is reportedly working with its research partners UCLA and Biogen on iPhone features that will detect depression and cognitive decline by monitoring users’ behavior, per WSJ.

  • The research is still in its early stages, but UCLA plans to track data from the iPhone video camera to analyze facial expressions, use keyboard and audio sensor data to analyze tone, and to analyze participants' movement, vital signs, and sleep patterns.
  • Researchers could also measure metrics like typing speed, typos, and content to learn about users’ state of mind.

The problem: Apple rolled out a new privacy campaign last year to boost consumers’ trust—but an invasive depression diagnosis tool could stymie those efforts.

Last November, Apple required apps in the iOS App Store to add privacy “nutrition labels” to inform users what type of sensitive information the app collects.

  • Apple’s move was likely part of a broader strategy to increase its data transparency and give users a better sense of control over their personal data.
  • It also launched several advertisements boasting its iPhone’s ability to protect consumers’ privacy within the last year.

But if users know Apple is analyzing their typing behavior and facial expressions to detect depression, it could raise brows and slow down Apple’s privacy initiative:

  • Apple’s new features are reminiscent of tools Amazon unveiled for its early wearable Halo (which tracks users’ tone of voice and movement using a smartphone camera)—early reviews called the tech “invasive” and “creepy.”
  • In Apple’s case, the mental health data it’s collecting could be leaked in an Apple data breach, putting consumer trust at risk.
  • Plus, about 59% of US adults already say they have little to no trust in companies like Apple and Google to protect their personal privacy, per an April 2021 survey by CivicScience.

The opportunity: If Apple does move forward with the depression detection feature, it’ll need to offer a way for users to seek professional help after receiving a diagnoses—or else it’ll be limited in utility.

Only half of US individuals diagnosed with depression get treatment for their condition, in part due to barriers like lack of mental health providers and affordability of mental health services.

  • That means informing users that they are showing signs of depression isn’t enough.
  • Apple could connect users to a licensed therapist or psychiatrist to manage their condition to make a bigger impact on their health outcomes.
  • For example, it could direct users to provider search and scheduling platforms like Zocdoc or Headway to help users find a low-cost virtual or in-person appointment.

NEW REPORT: We examine the data privacy landscape and explore how consumers view their healthcare privacy data in our new report, Healthcare Data Privacy 2021: Providers Race Against Ransomware.