Will my period tracking app betray me? Menstrual monitoring in a post-Roe world

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A study of 24 health-related apps found that 19 shared personal data with third-party sources, which could then transfer the information to hundreds of other companies. (digital crazy fish / Creative Commons)

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s draft majority opinion was leaked gutting Roe vs. Wade, Twitter was abuzz warning women to remove period-tracking apps from their smartphones. The concern is that the treasure trove of data menstruating people dump into these apps – including their periods, sexual history and moods – could be shared with police or private citizens enforcing abortion bans.

More than 100 million menstrual women use period tracking apps to manage their reproductive health. Users want to know when to expect her period, monitor her fertility and better understand her body. Indeed, these apps are wrapped in the language of feminist empowerment. After decades of excluding women and other menstruating people from medical research and health-focused products, this framework is powerful.

However, rhetoric is at the service of profit femtech industry, in which every aspect of a person’s reproductive health, from menstruation to pregnancy to menopause, is monetized by technology developers. Although most period tracking apps are “free” to users, they usually make money by selling the collected data.

A study out of 24 health-related apps, 19 shared personal data with third-party sources, which could then transfer the information to hundreds of other companies.

In 2021, the The Federal Trade Commission has settled a case against popular app Flo for selling users’ intimate health data to a range of marketing and analytics companies, including Facebook and Google, despite users’ promises that their data was secure. In 2020, the California Attorney General won a $250,000 settlement from the Glow app after it alleged the app had security flaws that put user data at risk.

In addition, aggregating these reproductive health data with other data sources can lead to gender discrimination. A person’s digital profile can eventually lead to higher insurance rates, increased interest on loans, and even lead to discrimination in the workplace, all without their knowledge. In a related way, employers are increasingly pushing female employees to download wellness apps, giving them unwarranted access to their workers’ health status and pregnancy information.

These applications can also integrate political objectives. A fertility app was designed and funded specifically promote the fight against abortion causes. While app support is invisible to users, users receive missives that attack the safety and effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives and push natural awareness methods.

In this context, should people with wombs also fear that their personal data will be used against them in anti-abortion lawsuits or civil cases? Currently, there is no evidence that anyone is using a technological net to track down people whose menstrual cycles suggest pregnancy termination. Again, laws like Texas SB 8 – offering a $10,000 bounty to anyone who catches someone helping to procure an abortion – are relatively new, and the anti-abortion movement is very aggressive.

Indeed, there is lots of evidence that reproductive health data is already weaponized by the anti-abortion movement. For example, on May 3, Defect reported a data brokerage firm was selling data on people’s visits to abortion clinics, including Planned Parenthood. Data for sale included where individuals came from, how long they were at the clinic, and where they went afterward. Anti-abortion activists and law enforcement could easily purchase these kinds of datasets to target women seeking out-of-state abortions. These data could then become evidence in a trial.

There is ample evidence that reproductive health data is already being weaponized by the anti-abortion movement.

Similarly, for several years, anti-abortion groups have sent targeted messages, anti-abortion propaganda to women while they sit in Planned Parenthood clinics. This targeted advertising uses geo-fencing or location tracking on people’s smartphones to identify abortion patients. This publicity tool could be modified to identify women traveling out of state for abortion care as well as generate evidence for a trial.

Unfortunately, these data collection practices are legal. The United States has no comprehensive data protection law giving consumers control over their personal data or imposing obligations on data collectors. Only one handful of states have such laws.

For its part, HIPAA applies only to medical information shared with physicians; it does not cover data collected by apps or wearable devices. the Food and drug administration does not generally regulate medical applications, limiting its review to medical devices that pose risks to patient safety in the event of device failure.

Whether they know it or not, when someone consents to an app’s privacy policy, they’re usually agreeing to the unlimited sale and sharing of their sensitive data. However, the reality is users do not– and hardly can – read long, legalistic, boilerplate privacy policies, and even if they do, they lack the ability to negotiate their terms. Additionally, breaches of privacy policies are nearly impossible for users to discover.

As a result, the technology experts recommend a variety of steps for those using period tracking apps, including careful research and selection of apps with stronger privacy controls, setting up devices to use two-factor authentication, activation of ad blockers and deactivation of geolocation tracking. In the post-deer world, the recommendations are more and more serious, such as completely deleting apps (and requesting deletion of data), never visiting an abortion clinic with a smartphone, and searching online for information about abortion services only through encrypted search engines. Some even advise a return to paper calendars.

It’s time to consider and build safe and secure period tracking apps that meet the needs of menstruators. Such an app would be science-based, non-profit and non-stereotypical. There would be no data sharing with third parties and users would be able to control the use of their data. Now, more than ever, we need secure technologies to withstand the rise of menstrual monitoring deployed in the service of an anti-abortion agenda.

Sign and share Mrs. relaunched the “We had abortions” petition– whether you have had an abortion yourself or simply stand in solidarity with those who have – to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: we will not abandon the right to a safe abortion, legal and accessible.

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