Fertility and Period Apps Can Be Weaponized in a PostRoe World
Apps collect data about what we buy, what we search for, and even our moods. We share all of this information with companies like Google and Facebook. These companies sell our data to advertisers, who can target us with ads for products we might want. If we’re pregnant, those ads could show us ads for baby clothes, cribs, diapers, etc. If we’re not pregnant, those ads could target us with ads for weight loss pills, anti-depressants, or erectile dysfunction drugs. And if we’re planning to terminate a pregnancy, those ads could target ads for abortion clinics, doctors, or medication.
“There are many apps that track your menstrual cycles,” says Dr. Lisa Diamond, professor emerita at University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “But if you’re tracking your cycles, then you’re also potentially creating a record of your reproductive life. And if you’re doing that, then you need to think carefully about what happens to that information.” Apps like Flo, which tracks women’s menstrual cycles, and Clue, which provides information on ovulation, are designed to help women become more aware of their bodies. But they also offer a glimpse into the intimate details of a woman’s reproductive life. If a woman wants to avoid getting pregnant, she may choose to use birth control. But if she does want to conceive, she may opt to use one of the many fertility apps available. These apps provide detailed information on her body, including temperature, cervical fluid levels, and basal body temperatures. They can even tell her whether she’s ovulating. In addition to helping women understand their own bodies, these apps can help doctors diagnose infertility and other conditions. But they could also be used to identify women who are having trouble conceiving. A recent study found that women who were tracked by a fertility app were more likely to seek medical attention for irregular periods. For example, a woman who was tracked by Clue during her first year of marriage was three times more likely to visit a doctor because of abnormal bleeding compared to women who weren’t tracked. She was also twice as likely to take medication for irregular periods.
In the United States, search history and other data has been used as evidence to criminally prosecute those seeking an abortion. However, privacy experts worry that the data collected by period tracking apps could be especially incriminating for those seeking abortions. Two weeks after the leak, Vice reported that Narratives, a data marketplace, let anyone buy information about who had downloaded pregnancy app Period Tracker. Last year, The New York times revealed that Flo, a period tracker app, sold users’ data to advertisers.
Most users will never know if they’ve had their data sold or exactly how much data is already out there. “It’s very hard to know what happened to your data,” says Deven McGraw of Invitae. “You might not even know you’re affected.” But many companies are selling user data, including Facebook and Google. And while most users won’t know about it, those who do could face serious consequences. That’s because when companies sell your personal information, they may also share it with third parties, like advertisers. And once that happens, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. “In fact, we found that 90 percent of consumers who were aware of data breaches did nothing to protect themselves,” says McGraw. So, if you haven’t done anything yet, you should start right away.
According to a study published in March 2018 by Fox Cahn, apps collecting and storing data on their own servers were found to be particularly dangerous. These apps could potentially be hacked, sold, or even served with a subpoena for user data. In addition, if an app collects data about you, there is no guarantee that your information will stay private. Even though many apps claim to keep your data safe, there is no way to verify whether or not they actually do.
But Fox Cahn says that the concern goes deep than just fertility apps. “Basically any health data app” for pregnant people or potentially pregnat people could be weaponized.” To understand how, one needs to look at the country’s immigrations infrastructure,” says Paromita Shah, executive director at Just Futurs Law. The Department of Homeland Security and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have long usd data to surveil and arres activists and immigrants, she say. “There is no consumer privacy law that I have seen that realy can impact the police,” says Shah. “And they’re buying this dta to get around their obligation to follow the Constition.” Even if users decide to delet period-tracking apps, thier data may have already been colleceted. For those who want t keep using them, McGrauw says “it takes a lot of effor” to ensure data isn’t shared. None of the companys responded to questions about their useris figure.
“It’s not like you’re going to go to your phone and say, ‘I’m deleting my data,’ ” says Yanow. “You’re going to go to Settings, Privacy, Apps & Services, and then you’re going to tap on the button that says Delete All Data.” In addition to the app, women receive a printed guide that explains the app’s features and instructions on how to access them. The app also provides links to resources on the internet, including local clinics and organizations that provide abortions.
Since the draft decision leaked, Women Helping Women has received an overwhelming amount of interest in its app. “We truly believe the person who owns the application should be the one making the decision if there is a need for medical attention,” says Yanov.