Some period tracking apps share data with third parties. With the potential rollback of abortion protections in the US, people are re-evaluating whether the data collected by these apps could be used as evidence against them.
May 9, 2022
The recent leak of a US Supreme Court draft opinion suggests that Roe v Wade could be overturned, eliminating abortion rights across the country. The prospect has once again raised questions about the privacy of period tracking apps. Some apps share data with third parties for advertising or research purposes, raising concerns that this data could be used as evidence against anyone seeking or obtaining an abortion in states that ban the procedure if Roe v Wade is overturned.
What type of data is at risk?
Period tracking apps vary in scope. In some, people record simple details like when their period starts and ends, and the app makes predictions about when their period will come in the future and when they’re ovulating. Others also act as social sites, with calendars, nutrition tips and forums where users can chat about their sex drive or share experiences trying to get pregnant.
The data that can be sold from these apps depends on what is in the terms and conditions, though it can be hundreds of pages long and difficult to crack. Some apps promise to remove identifying details like a user’s name, address or email before selling or sharing any information, but that may not include details like an IP address, which can be linked to a specific device.
“Machine learning techniques are so sophisticated that you don’t need to have a person’s name to uniquely identify them,” says Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public research group.
That creates a conundrum if the US Supreme Court strikes down abortion protections across the country. If the draft opinion stands, states will have the power to write their own laws on the legality and illegality of abortion.
“If you live in places where abortion becomes illegal, it would be a bad idea to put ‘I had an abortion’ on Facebook, Twitter or a period tracker app,” says India McKinney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
It doesn’t have to be that explicit either, as many apps collect location data. “When that little blue dot goes from that house to that office, you have a pretty good idea of who it is,” says McKinney.
Can location data be bought and sold?
Location data in general is extremely easy and inexpensive to buy, as Vice News’ Motherboard found out when it bought that data for a week from data broker SafeGraph. The data showed where people came from and where they went after visiting Planned Parenthood, a reproductive health nonprofit.
A recently passed law in Texas bans most abortions once heart activity in the embryo can be detected by ultrasound, which is around 6 weeks. It offers $10,000 rewards to those who successfully sue people linked to abortions occurring after this point, giving a reason to seek this information.
Law enforcement can access this information without a warrant by purchasing it, says McKinney. “That’s legal.”
Is my health data not protected by law?
Some period tracking apps claim to be “HIPAA compliant,” which suggests they’re subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a law that protects health and medical information. The rule applies to groups like hospitals, health care facilities and insurance companies, limiting what they can share and disclose. However, HIPAA does not protect data collected by apps that someone might download from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
“I think this is a common misconception,” says Quinn Grundy of the University of Toronto in Canada. “Not all health-related data is treated in the same way under the law.”
Do I need to delete my period tracker app?
McKinney understands the urgency of removing period trackers, but says it’s like not buying a car because you don’t want someone stealing it off the street. Instead, he suggests being careful about what you post, choosing apps with privacy guarantees you agree with, and declining an app’s request to use location data. Navigation apps need to know your location, but an ovulation tracker app probably doesn’t.
Ultimately, stricter privacy laws would help. “I don’t want to live in a world where I trust the app to do the right thing with my sensitive personal data,” says McKinney.
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