San Francisco - Apple’s new Research Kit software platform turns the iPhone into a diagnostic tool drawing medical data from millions of potential customers, creating a boon for researchers and a headache for privacy advocates.
With iPhone users’ permission, Apple will be able to take data gleaned from its Health app and share it with doctors and scientists to use in medical research, CEO Tim Cook said at an Apple event last week in San Francisco. The information could include a user’s weight, blood pressure and activity levels, as well as information on conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and breast cancer.Apple’s apps “already help millions of customers track and improve their health,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice president of operations. “With hundreds of millions of iPhones in use around the world, we saw an opportunity for Apple to have an even greater impact by empowering people to participate in and contribute to medical research.”
ResearchKit joins health-tracking technology tools such as Fitbit Inc.’s wristwear that can generate reams of data on people’s health and activity levels. While researchers are enthusiastic about having access to such information culled from a diverse population, privacy advocates are concerned that the information could be tied to individual users.
As the iPhone’s technology has advanced, the data it can capture on its customers’ activity has gone far beyond the basics, such as the number of steps a user has taken in a day. Researchers will be able to ask for access to the accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope and GPS sensors in the iPhone “to gain insight into a patient’s gait, motor impairment, fitness, speech and memory,” Apple said.
Using separate devices made by other companies, the iPhone also can gather information such as glucose levels and asthma-inhaler use.
Many consumers don’t understand that the health data they share with an app or device can be used in ways they hadn’t intended, such as marketing to them or profiling them online, said Jennifer Geetter, a health lawyer.
There is also the risk that data could fall into the hands of hackers. Health-care data breaches are on the rise because health information can fetch 10 times the price of financial data on the black market, security analysts have said.