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Federal regulators crackdown on Flo app after it shared women's private data with Facebook, Google

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Posted at 11:20 AM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-26 14:20:44-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There's an app for everything these days, including health apps that help you count calories or manage medications.

But to use some of them, you need to hand over a lot of information.

And, while you may think your personal information is going to be kept private, millions of women are learning an app they used actually shared their information with other companies.

More than 19 million women in the U.S. have downloaded the Flo app which tracks menstrual cycles and pregnancies and can include a woman's plans to get pregnant or problems she's had getting or being pregnant. All of it, personal information many women don't want to share.

But, Miles Plant, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, said Flo let these women down.

"So it was breaking its promises to users to keep their most private health information secret," Plant explained.

The FTC recently went after Flo after it was discovered that the company "repeatedly promised to protect the (women's) information and keep it secret" and yet, it didn't.

"It was actually sharing with a number of companies including Facebook and Google for a variety of purposes. And it wasn’t doing anything to limit those companies' use of that data," Plant said.

He added that it's important to remember there are risks that come with using apps, including the risk that your personal information will be shared and used to send targeted ads. It's possible even that certain health information could be used to say deny you a loan or even a job.

So before you download an app, do some research.

"You should comparison shop when you’re thinking about a type of app," Plant recommended. "You can look at different apps in the App Store that provide the same service and look at the ratings and then there are a lot of outside companies and newspapers and media vendors that evaluate different apps and compare them on privacy and functionality and that type of thing and those are really important tools."

And, make sure you know what data the app is collecting and what it's doing with it, how much of your information will be shared, and with whom. And don't stop there.

"I know it’s easy to download an app, right? And start handing off this information and it seems like a lot of work sometimes to double-check what you’re doing but there’s some low hanging fruit that we can all do which is to protect ourselves, update our phones, update our apps, all the time to make sure that we have the most up-to-date privacy and security protections in place," Plant suggested. "And then within your phone on settings, you can just update some of the most basic settings to limit what data is being shared with companies."

As part of the settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Flo now has to get users’ consent before it can share their information.

To find an app's privacy policy, look in the apps store and you should find a link. These policies are notorious for being long and filled with lots of tiny print and legal terms.

But the FTC is pushing companies to be more transparent and to simplify those agreements and make them easier for everyone to understand.

This story was originally published by Jennifer Kraus at WTVF in Nashville, Tennessee.