Will My Period Tracking App Betray Me? Menstrual Surveillance in a Post-Roe World


One examine of 24 health-related apps discovered 19 shared private knowledge with third-party sources, who may then switch the data to tons of of different firms. (Mad Fish Digital / Artistic Commons)

Nearly instantly after the leak of the Supreme Court docket majority’s draft opinion eviscerating Roe v. Wade, Twitter was abuzz warning ladies to delete interval monitoring apps from their smartphones. The priority is that the troves of information individuals who menstruate pour into these apps—together with their intervals, sexual historical past and moods—might be shared with police or personal residents imposing abortion bans.

Over 100 million menstruators use interval monitoring apps to handle their reproductive well being. Users want to know when to count on their intervals, to observe their fertility and to higher perceive their our bodies. Certainly, these apps are wrapped within the language of feminist self-empowerment. After a long time of girls and others who menstruate being excluded from medical analysis and health-oriented merchandise, this framing is highly effective.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric is in service of the for-profit femtech industry, by which each side of an individual’s reproductive well being from menstruation to being pregnant to menopause is being monetized by tech builders. Whereas most interval monitoring apps are “free” to customers, they usually generate income by promoting the collected knowledge.

One study of 24 health-related apps discovered 19 shared private knowledge with third-party sources, who may then switch the data to tons of of different firms.

In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission settled a case towards the favored Flo app for promoting intimate well being knowledge of customers to a variety of promoting and analytics firms, together with Fb and Google, regardless of promising customers their knowledge was safe. In 2020, the California attorney general obtained a $250,000 settlement from the Glow app after alleging the app had safety flaws that left customers’ knowledge in danger.

Additional, the aggregation of this reproductive well being knowledge with different knowledge sources can result in gender discrimination. Somebody’s digital profile might presumably lead to increased insurance coverage charges, elevated curiosity on loans and even result in office discrimination—all with out their information. Relatedly, employers are more and more pushing feminine staff to obtain wellness apps, giving them unwarranted entry to their staff’ well being standing and being pregnant info. 

These apps may also embed political goals. One fertility app was designed and funded particularly to promote anti-abortion causes. Whereas the backing of the app is invisible to customers, customers obtain missives which assault the security and efficacy of hormonal contraception and push pure consciousness strategies. 

Given this background, do individuals with uteruses additionally have to worry their private knowledge shall be used towards them in anti-abortion prosecutions or civil instances? At the moment, there isn’t any proof that anybody is working a technological dragnet to trawl for individuals whose interval cycles counsel a termination of being pregnant. Then once more, legal guidelines corresponding to Texas S.B. 8—offering a $10,000 bounty to anybody who nabs somebody helping in procuring an abortion—are comparatively new and the anti-abortion motion may be very aggressive.

Certainly, there may be ample evidence that reproductive well being knowledge is already being weaponized by the anti-abortion motion. As an example, on Could 3, Vice reported an information dealer agency was promoting knowledge about individuals’s visits to abortion clinics, together with Deliberate Parenthood. The info-for-sale included the place the people got here from, how lengthy they had been on the clinic and the place they travelled afterwards. Anti-abortion activists and regulation enforcement may simply purchase these types of information units to focus on ladies in search of abortions out-of-state. This knowledge may then change into evidence in a trial.

There may be ample proof that reproductive well being knowledge is already being weaponized by the anti-abortion motion.

Equally, for a number of years anti-abortion teams have been sending focused, anti-abortion propaganda to ladies whereas they sit in Deliberate Parenthood clinics. This focused promoting makes use of geo-fencing or location monitoring on individuals’s smartphones to determine abortion sufferers. This promoting software might be tweaked to determine ladies travelling out-of-state for abortion care in addition to to generate proof for a trial.

Sadly, these knowledge gathering practices are authorized. The USA doesn’t have a comprehensive data privacy law giving shoppers management over their private knowledge or placing obligations on knowledge collectors. Solely a handful of states have such legal guidelines. 

For its half, HIPAA applies solely to medical info shared with docs; it doesn’t cowl knowledge collected by apps or wearable units. The Food and Drug Administration typically doesn’t regulate medical apps, limiting its overview to medical units that pose affected person security dangers within the occasion of machine failure.

Whether or not they understand it or not, when somebody consents to an app’s privateness coverage, they normally conform to the limitless sale and sharing of their delicate knowledge. Nonetheless, the truth is users do not—and virtually can’t—learn prolonged, legalistic and boilerplate privateness insurance policies, and even when they do, they don’t have any means to barter their phrases.  Furthermore, breaches of privateness insurance policies are practically not possible for customers to uncover. 

Accordingly, tech experts recommend a wide range of steps for these utilizing interval monitoring apps, together with fastidiously researching and deciding on apps with higher privateness controls, setting units to make use of two-factor authentication, turning on advert blockers and turning off geolocation monitoring. Within the post-Roe world, the suggestions are getting more dire, corresponding to deleting the apps altogether (and requesting knowledge deletions), by no means going to an abortion clinic with a smartphone and looking out on-line for details about abortion providers solely via encrypted search engines like google. Some even advise a return to paper calendars. 

It’s time to envision and construct protected and safe interval monitoring apps that meet menstruator’s wants. Such an app could be science-based, non-profit and non-stereotyped. There could be no sharing of information with third events and customers would be capable of management the usage of their knowledge. Now, greater than ever, we want safe applied sciences to withstand the rise of menstrual surveillance deployed in service of an anti-abortion agenda.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether or not you your self have had an abortion, or just stand in solidarity with those that have—to let the Supreme Court docket, Congress and the White Home know: We won’t surrender the appropriate to protected, authorized, accessible abortion.

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