Why people trust Apple with their health data more than Google or Amazon

Key Points
  • Apple has made a big public stand about protecting customer privacy, and its message seems to be resonating.
  • Privacy experts weigh in.
Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Getty Images

Would you trust a technology company like Apple, Amazon or Google with your health data?

More than 1,000 people participated in my Twitter poll on the topic, and the majority of people responded that they would. Only 37 percent of people responded that they would not share their data.

Among those who opted to share their health data with a tech company, one clear winner emerged: Apple.

It has been two years since the research firm Rock Health surveyed the American public and found that most people would not trust a tech company with their data. Only about 8 percent said they would share their health information.

This poll isn't comparable. It was entirely unscientific in nature, and did not represent a diverse swath of the public. The majority of my Twitter followers work in the technology and health sectors.

Still, privacy experts say there is something revealing in the results. In their experience, sentiment does seem to be changing around the major tech companies, particularly Apple.

"Apple has done a big push around health and privacy to breed familiarity and comfort," said Andrew Boyd, a professor of biomedical and health information sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As Boyd points out, Apple has shared plans to aggregate health information on the phone so users can share it -- with consent. And as CNBC reported, the company plans to followup by integrating other types of medical data, like clinical labs, which have historically been scattered across hospitals and clinics.

The company has made repeated assurances to users that it will not sell health data to advertisers. That policy extends to third-party developers.

The company also went up against the FBI in refusing to help the agency unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter, which some interpreted as a move to protect privacy and security.

As Apple CEO Tim Cook told NPR: "Some of our most personal data is on the phone - our financial data, our health information, our conversations with our friends and family and coworkers. And so instead of us taking that data into Apple, we've kept data on the phone, and it's encrypted by you. You control it."

That message seems to have resonated with users -- and with privacy experts.

"I voted for Apple because their brand, to date, has a stronger privacy foundation than other options (Google and Amazon)," said Lucia Savage, chief privacy and regulatory offer at a start-up called Omada Health and the former chief privacy officer for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Savage stressed that all health data collection companies, including tech giants, should adopt minimum protections: To provide a summary of the data collected about their users, and to agree not to sell it.

Other privacy experts note that these companies collect a lot of health-related data that is not protected by rules that govern how companies can share and store medical information, like HIPAA.

"If you buy condoms from Amazon, your purchase history is not protected health information under HIPAA; your Dr. Google search history is not, nor is Strava location data," said Chas Ballew, a regulatory lawyer and the co-founder of a start-up called Aptible.

So does Apple deserve the top spot?

Well, perhaps for now.

Boyd points out that it's impossible to know if any of these companies -- Apple, Amazon, Google -- will still be thriving decades from now. If they run into financial problems, "the data will be one of their most lucrative remaining assets," he said.