Smartphone users can soon get health advice directly from medical experts thanks to a new partnership between Waterloo-based Blackberry and digital wellness platform Sharecare, co-created by Dr. Mehmet Oz and WebMD founder Jeff Arnold.

The companies announced the launch of the service, called the Sharecare BBM channel, in a release Wednesday saying it will connect users to major health organizations and medical professionals from inside Blackberry's messaging service, BBM.

"Experts ranging from the American Cancer Society to licensed physicians and nurses, and luminaries from Deepak Chopra to Dr. Oz can be connected to users to help them find the health answers, advice and resources that are right for them," the release states.

First created in 2010, the Sharecare platform allows users to build a personalized online health profile by answering questions about lifestyle and medical history. The platform's AskMD function gives users access to health consultations and contains a database of nearby health professionals that can be filtered by language, experience and hospital affiliation, according to its website.

Privacy experts concerned

Sharecare says almost 45 million people have shared 6 billion data points of health information and habits on the platform. And the BBM channel will allow the the service to extend its reach to "hundreds of millions more consumers," Arnold said in the release.

But for some privacy experts, sharing personal health information online is fraught with potential pitfalls.

"The concern really becomes how do they protect that information and do they apply the proper privacy controls," Security Perspectives president Scott Wright told CBC News.

Blackberry says its encrypted messaging platform, BBM Protected, will help ensure the sensitive health information of users is properly safeguarded.

"We are addressing the privacy concerns consumers may have regarding personal health data and ensuring we're providing the solutions necessary to thwart anything that could compromise sensitive information," BlackBerry chief operating officer Marty Beard said in Wednesday's release.


Blackberry says its encrypted messaging platform, BBM Protected, will help ensure Sharecare users' sensitive health information is properly safeguarded. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Dr. Ann Cavoukian, executive director of Ryerson University's Privacy and Big Data Institute, says users of the Sharecare service need to make sure they read and understand the platform's privacy policies. "We know no one does that," she said.

Cavoukian says there are two policies that govern users of the Sharecare service. The first is a general use policy that allows personal information to be sold to third-party marketers in a variety of instances. "That made me nervous," she said.

A second policy specific to health information requires users to provide explicit consent before Sharecare can sell, rent or share their personal health details. But, she cautions, if the service is sold, that information can easily change hands as part of a possible takeover.

"To me that raises a lot of red flags," she said.  "You have to take the blinders off and go into these things - especially when personal health information is involved - with your eyes open."

Putting information online can be risky

Wright echoes the concerns, saying that putting personal information online always comes with risks.

"From a social engineering or a con artist point of view, people can get tricked into divulging too much information that could be used against them for things like identity theft or even more malicious purposes," Wright said.

And while concerns about identity theft are nothing new, Wright says how volunteering health information online can impact legal cases or be accessed by insurance companies remains murky territory.

The bottom line, according to Cavoukian: "Make it your business to at least ask some questions before you disclose your sensitive health information onto a website which may be accessed by others."

Blackberry could not be reached immediately Wednesday for comment.