What putting medical records on an iPhone means for personal privacy

What putting medical records on an iPhone means for personal privacy

Apple wants to put your medical history in the palm of your hand. 

The tech giant confirmed on Wednesday that it intends to allow customers access to their medical records via iPhones on iOS 11.3 beta. But like with so many things in the world of highly personal data, putting medical information on a digitally connected device is not without risk — and how it all shakes out could have a huge impact on the lives of millions. 

According to CNBC, which broke the story, the new feature will be folded into the Apple Health app. After a health provider is added to the app, the "user taps to connect to Apple's software system."

Does that mean the information in question passes through Apple's servers before hitting your iPhone, or does it come directly from the provider itself? And how, exactly, is that data protected from hackers or leaks? Fortunately, we were able to get some clarity on both of those questions in a Thursday conversation with Apple. 

According to the company, your health data does not touch Apple's servers (unless you want it to — more on that later), and instead comes straight from your health provider. As far as protecting the data is concerned, the company insists that your medical records are encrypted both in transit and at rest. 

This is important, because if Apple wants people to trust it with the details of their "allergies, conditions, immunizations, lab results, medications, procedures and vitals," as CNBC reports, then it needs to ensure that data is secure. 

Your life in an app.

Your life in an app.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Mashable was also able to confirm that the medical records in question can be kept on an iCloud account, but that otherwise they're stored locally on the device, and protected with the same form of encryption that secures everything else on your iPhone. 

According to Apple, a user can choose to keep their medical records off iCloud while still taking advantaged of cloud storage and backups for other features — like photos. Simply opting out of connecting the Health app to iCloud is enough to keep that data local. 

Risk and reward

While the benefits of having your medical history at your fingertips may be numerous, so are the potential pitfalls. After all, it's not hard to imagine what could go wrong. As the notorious 2014 hack of celebrity iCloud accounts made clear, Apple can't necessarily guarantee the safety of your data. 

Sure, that incident involved targeted phishing, but for many people, a jealous ex is part of a valid threat model — and that's exactly the type of person who would be able to bluff their way into an iCloud account. 

That is also the same kind of person who might have physical access to your iPhone. As soon as they got into one of those devices, your medical records would potentially be up for grabs.  

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Thankfully, when it comes to Apple protecting your iCloud account (and now possibly your medical records along with it) from hackers, the company has given customers the option to enable 2-factor authentication for iCloud accounts. Everyone that owns an iPhone really should, health records or no.

As soon as they got into one of those devices, your medical records would potentially be up for grabs.

And to be clear, it's not like your medical data is necessarily safe where it is. We learned in 2014 that hackers had stolen the records of some 4.5 million patients after breaching the systems of an American hospital network. 

But, still. Throwing another potential target into the mix in the form of an iPhone or iCloud account, no matter how secure Apple may claim them to be, doesn't make this reality any better. 

We reached out to both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for additional insight, and will update this when and if we hear back. 

In the meantime, it's perhaps best to keep in mind that medical records present a unique challenge when it comes to balancing privacy, security, and availability. Not getting them into the hands of your doctor could have disastrous effects, but so could having them fall into the hands of a hacker. 

Essentially, like so many things in life, proceed with putting your medical records on your smartphone at your own risk. 

This story has been updated to include comment from Apple, and to note that, contrary to CNBC's initial reporting, accessing medical records will not be possible via the Apple Watch.

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