Some period-tracking apps share data with third parties. With the potential rolling back of abortion protections in the US, people are reassessing if the data collected by these apps could be used as evidence against them
9 May 2022
The recent leak of a draft opinion from the US Supreme Court suggests that Roe v Wade could be overturned, eliminating the country-wide right to an abortion. The prospect has re-raised questions about the privacy of period-tracking apps. Some apps share data with third parties for advertising or research purposes, causing concern this data could be used as evidence against anyone seeking or obtaining an abortion in states that outlaw the procedure should Roe v Wade be overturned.
What kind of data is at risk?
Period-tracking apps vary in scope. In some, people record simple details, like when their period begins and ends, and the app the makes predictions about when their period will arrive in future and when they are 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, although these can be hundreds of pages long and hard to decipher. Some apps promise to strip identifying details such as a user’s name, address or email before selling or sharing any data, but that may not include details like an IP address, which can be linked to a specific device.
“Machine learning techniques are so sophisticated it is not necessary to have a person’s name to uniquely identify them,” says Pam Dixon, founder of World Privacy Forum, a non-profit public research group.
That creates a conundrum if the US Supreme Court strikes down nationwide abortion protections. If the draft opinion stands, states will have the power to write their own laws around the legality – and illegality – of abortion.
“If you live in places where abortion becomes illegal, it would be a bad idea to put in Facebook, Twitter or a period tracker app ‘I had an abortion’,” says India McKinney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
It also doesn’t have to be that explicit, 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 that is,” says McKinney.
Can location data be bought and sold?
Location data in general is extremely easy and inexpensive to purchase, as Vice News’s Motherboard discovered when it bought a week’s worth of such data from data broker SafeGraph. The data showed where people came from and went to after visiting Planned Parenthood, a reproductive healthcare non-profit.
A recent law passed in Texas bans most abortions once cardiac activity in the embryo can be detected via ultrasound, which happens at around 6 weeks. It offers $10,000 bounties to those who successfully sue people linked to abortions that occur after this point, giving a motive to seek this data.
Law enforcement can access this information without a warrant by buying it, says McKinney. “That’s legal.”
Isn’t my health data protected under the law?
Some period-tracking apps do claim to be “HIPAA compliant”, suggesting they are bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a law that safeguards health and medical information. The rule applies to groups such as hospitals, health care centres and insurance companies, limiting what they can share and disclose. However, HIPAA doesn’t protect data collected by apps someone might download from Apple’s App Store or Google Play.
“I think this is a common misconception,” says Quinn Grundy at the University of Toronto in Canada. “Not all health-related data is treated the same way under the law.”
Should I delete my period-tracking app?
McKinney understands the urge to delete period trackers but says that is akin to not buying a car because you don’t want someone breaking into it on the street. Instead, she suggests being thoughtful about what you post, pick apps with privacy guarantees you agree with and reject an app’s request to use location data. Navigation apps need to know your location, but an app tracking ovulation probably doesn’t.
Ultimately, stronger 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 personal sensitive data,” says McKinney.
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