Therapy app Talkspace mined user data for marketing insights, former employees allege
A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.
- In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
- Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
- It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
A recent report raises questions over how the mobile therapy company Talkspace handles user data.
Launched in 2014, Talkspace is an app that provides its users access to licensed therapists through text, audio, and video. To access therapy, users fill out a questionnaire to get "matched" with a therapist, and then, for prices starting at about $200 per month, they begin chatting with their therapist through whichever medium they prefer.
This model can help make therapy more accessible for people short on time or money. But according to a new report from The New York Times, former employees say that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights," and that Talkspace data scientists "shared common phrases from clients' transcripts with the marketing team so that it could better target potential customers."
The company denied using client conversation transcripts for marketing purposes, but did acknowledge that "data science and clinical leadership will from time to time share insights with their colleagues."
Former employees also questioned the legitimacy of certain interventions by the company into client-therapist interactions. For example, after one therapist sent a client a link to an online anxiety worksheet, a company representative instructed her to try to keep clients inside the app.
"I was like, 'How do you know I did that?'" Karissa Brennan, a therapist who worked with Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, told the Times. "They said it was private, but it wasn't."
Other former employees said the company would pay special attention to its "enterprise partner" clients, who worked at companies like Google. One therapist said Talkspace contacted her for taking too long to respond to Google clients.
Talkspace responded to the Times with a Medium post, which claimed the Times report contained false and "uninformed assertions."
"Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements," the post states.
However, if the claims in the Times report are true, Talkspace may have violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, which prohibits providers from disclosing patients' medical data for marketing purposes, unless the patient gives authorization.
"If it is true that Talkspace used information from private therapy sessions for marketing purposes, that is a clear violation of trust with their customers," Hayley Tsukayama, Legislative Activist from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Salon. "All companies should be very clear with their customers about how they use personal information, make sure that they don't use information in ways that consumers don't expect, and give them the opportunity to withdraw consent for those purposes on an ongoing basis. Talkspace trades on its trustworthiness and mentions privacy frequently in its ad campaigns. Its actions should be in line with its promises."
(It's also worth noting that Talkspace recently threatened legal action against a security researcher who wrote a blog post outlining the potential discovery of a bug that allowed him to get a year's subscription for free. A report from TechCrunch notes that Talkspace rejected the findings, and that the company does not offer a way for researchers to submit potential security bugs.)
Beyond privacy concerns, the report also raises questions about the efficacy of teletherapy, especially within a corporate model.
"The app-ification of mental health care has real problems," Hannah Zeavin, a lecturer at the University of California and author of an upcoming book on teletherapy, told the Times. "These are corporate platforms first. And they offer therapy second."
The main problem with judging the efficacy of teletherapy is the lack of solid research — it's too new to comprehensively compare it with in-person therapy. Still, some studies suggest it could be useful for at-risk populations, or for people in the wake of a disaster.
'It's just not therapy'
But others remain skeptical.
"Maybe [teletherapy] products and services are helpful to certain people," said Linda Michaels, a founder of the Psychotherapy Action Network, a therapists advocacy group. "But it's just not therapy."
Proper therapy or not, it's worth considering how platforms like Talkspace use — and possibly even depend on — user data. In a 2019 opinion piece published in the Times, Talkspace co-founder Oren Frank wrote:
"The vast amount of information each of us possesses is far too important to be left under the control of just a few entities — private or public. We can think of our health care data as a contribution to the public good and equalize its availability to scientists and researchers across disciplines, like open source code. From there, imagine better predictive models that will in turn allow better and earlier diagnoses, and eventually better treatments.
Your health care data could help people who are, at least in some medical aspects, very similar to you. It might even save their lives. The right thing to do with your data is not to guard it, but to share it."
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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