Why period-tracking apps are under scrutiny after Roe

Your data can and will be used against you in court!

On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade judgment, which granted women the right to have an abortion before pregnancy reached 24 to 28 weeks. This discouraging verdict made abortion illegal in 23 US states and deprived women of their rights over their own bodies.

Even before that decision was finally reversed, women in the United States began to sound the alarm about the danger of using period trackers and fertility trackers. These trackers recorded reproductive information about their users, which would become a threat to women’s rights instead of the recent reversal. Let’s take a closer look at the security issues with these tracking apps and see if removing them actually fixes the problem.

How do period and fertility trackers work?

On average, a menstrual cycle lasts 28 days. The first day of this cycle is when a woman gets her period, and ovulation (or when a woman is most fertile) occurs about 10 to 16 days before the next period.

The most basic period trackers require you to enter the start and end of your period. Based on the data, it calculates an estimated date when your next period will start. Some apps also use this information to tell you when you’re likely to ovulate and therefore when would be a good time to conceive if you want to have children.

How can this data be used against you?

In a post-Roe vs. Wade world, the government can use this data as evidence against women for illegal abortions. Although period tracker data may not be completely accurate, an indication of pregnancy as well as movement across state lines (to places where abortion is still legal) could be used together to build a file.

This may all sound like a hypothetical scenario, but one of the most popular period-tracking apps, Flo, has actually shared users’ personal data in the past. The company admitted that it uses data from the app for research purposes, but that data comes to it in an aggregated manner without any identifiable characteristics linking it to specific users. According to a 2019 investigative article from The Wall Street Journal, Flo has also shared user data with Facebook in the past. The app informed the company of specific users’ intentions to get pregnant and their menstrual habits so that it could target users with relevant advertisements.

Does deleting the app solve anything?

Knowing what we know now, it makes sense that women in the United States are beginning to be wary of the information they share with menstrual trackers. But are you really accomplishing anything by deleting these apps when so much of your life is on the internet? Previously, data such as texts

(like, shit, I’m pregnant!) and pregnancy termination pill search history were used to create abortion cases against women.

Your phone location could also be used to find out if you have visited an abortion clinic. In May this year, Vice spent US$160 and bought data from a location data company that revealed where people visiting Planned Parenthood, a non-profit reproductive care organization, were coming from and going, and how much of time they remained there. This should tell us that it’s really easy to use someone’s digital footprint to find out if they’ve had an abortion (or are planning to have one), even if they don’t use fertility apps. Also, those who already had these apps on their phones don’t really know if their data has already been sold or not. So deleting these apps now might not even make a difference.

So should you just swear all trackers?

Just because there is a threat that your period data can be used against you doesn’t mean it actually will. If you really need extra help tracking your cycle, all you need to do is find the right apps to use. Beware of trackers that store information on central servers. This information can not only be hacked and sold, but the app would be forced to hand it over when requested by the government.

One of the period trackers people flocked to after the reversal of the verdict is Stardust, an app that combines period tracking with moon phases. The app promised to encrypt user data so the government could not access it. Although this resulted in hundreds of downloads, an updated version of the app’s privacy policy revealed that the company would comply if asked to submit user data, albeit encrypted and anonymized. Another safe period-tracking alternative you can use is Planned Parenthood’s Spot On app, which has always allowed users to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Also, the app only stores data locally on the user’s smartphone, which can be deleted if the app is deleted from the user’s phone.

As we have already established, there is more than one way technology can be used against women who need abortions. The most important takeaway is that the Roe vs. Wade reversal has made it harder than ever for women to track their menstrual cycles and the related health issues that could result from any changes in their menstrual cycle.

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Header image courtesy of Freepik

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