The Privacy Dangers of Period Tracking Apps Post Roe v. Wade

In June 2022, the United States Supreme Court rolled back the right to abortion, making it harder for pregnant people to access the procedure. In doing so, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision recognizing a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy safely and legalizing abortion nationwide.

The move is a major setback for women's rights and could have significant consequences for reproductive rights and healthcare access in the United States.

The court's ruling is a victory for anti-abortion activists, who have long sought to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, the decision is a major blow to women's rights advocates, who have been fighting to expand access to abortion and protect a woman's right to choose. The court's ruling puts these gains at risk and sets the stage for a long battle over abortion rights.

It's still unclear how the ruling will impact access to abortion in the U.S. Some states may move to restrict or ban the procedure, while other states may continue to allow safe and legal abortion.

Women who live in states that restrict or ban abortion risk criminal prosecution and jail time if they choose to terminate a pregnancy. Furthermore, doctors who provide abortions could also be subject to criminal charges.

Some states have also signaled an interest in going further. For example, lawmakers in Louisiana advanced a bill to classify abortion as a homicide. In Alabama, doctors who perform an abortion are committing a Class A felony which is punishable by up to 99 years in prison.

The court's ruling jeopardizes the health and safety of women forced to seek illegal abortions. Without safe and legal access to abortion, women may resort to dangerous and unsafe methods of terminating their pregnancies.

In the wake of the decision, questions have also been raised about data collected from period-tracking apps and other applications. Such data could be used to target and penalize women who have abortions. This raises serious privacy and security concerns for women who use these apps.

Privacy and period tracking apps

Period tracking apps are incredibly popular, with millions of women using them to track their menstrual cycles.

Apps such as Flo, Clue, and Woman Log, use machine learning to offer users menstrual cycle tracking and predictions, personalized health insights, and health alerts — based on the information they track. These apps collect a wealth of user data, including when they ovulate and when their period starts and ends. They can also record when pregnancies start and stop.

This data is valuable to the companies that collect it and to researchers studying reproductive health. However, it could also be used by governments and legal entities.

In theory, data collected by period tracking apps could be subpoenaed and used to estimate the likelihood that a pregnancy was terminated. This would allow authorities to target and prosecute women who have had abortions, as well as the doctors and medical personnel who provided them.

This raises serious privacy and security concerns for the millions of women who use these apps. Potentially, this data could be hacked or leaked, exposing people's personal information and reproductive history.

Furthermore, such data could be used to discriminate against women who have had abortions. Employers, insurers, and others could use this data to deny them jobs, insurance coverage, or other opportunities.

It's important to note that, as of now, there is no evidence that any period tracking app has been used to target or punish women who have had abortions. However, the possibility exists, and it's a serious concern.

If private corporations or the government can access sensitive personal data about people's lives, it could be used to control and punish them. People must be vigilant about this significant threat to privacy and autonomy.

Others tech concerns

It's not only period tracking apps that can incriminate people and raise privacy concerns. Other technology could potentially link someone with an abortion.

Consider the wealth of apps that track locations, travel routes, and activities. Such data could be used to determine if someone went to an abortion clinic. If someone shares their location with a friend or family member, that individual's data could also be subpoenaed and used.

It's critical to scrutinize any app that collects sensitive information about your health, body, or movements. Additionally, search histories could be incriminating. If someone searches for abortion-relevant topics, that data could be used against them.

Worryingly, the public may be able to purchase datasets that show search history, thereby providing a way for people to report someone for seeking an abortion or providing one. In some states, such as Texas, citizens receive payments of at least $10,000 for successfully suing an abortion provider.

Apps sharing personal data isn't new

App developers often cooperate with law enforcement during criminal investigations by providing user data. There have been cases of this happening with exploitative imagery of children.

Experts are concerned that if abortion is criminalized, then menstrual data could become a target for investigators.

Apps typically have privacy policies that allow them to share user data with law enforcement if required. However, these policies can be vague and change at any time. Should abortion become illegal, does that transcend the users' right to privacy written into the contracts?

The Flo app has already been criticized for sharing data. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal investigated the app and found it informed Facebook when users were menstruating or planning a pregnancy. As a result, the Federal Trade Commission decreed that Flo must have an independent review of its privacy policy and obtain user permissions before sharing personal health information.

However, Flo denied any wrongdoing, and following the external, independent privacy audit, they confirmed there are no gaps or weaknesses in its privacy practices.

Deleting the apps

You should consider your location and laws if you have doubts about your period-tracking app. If you live in a state where abortion is actively criminalized, it may be safest to delete the apps.

Otherwise, there are some safer options. Paid apps may be better as they're less likely to track and sell users' data to advertisers.

Apps that store data locally are preferable as the user owns it — not the company. Legal entities interested in data stored on a user's device would need a warrant rather than just a subpoena.

Overall, the least risky option is to use a paper calendar or computer spreadsheet to track period and fertility data.

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