Why Period Tracking Apps Are under Scrutiny after Roe vs Wade Reversal

Why Period Tracking Apps Are under Scrutiny after Roe vs Wade Reversal

Your data can and will be held against you in the court of law!

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the historic Roe vs Wade judgment, which gave women the right to have an abortion before the pregnancy reaches 24-28 weeks. This disheartening verdict has made abortion illegal in 23 U.S. states and has taken away women’s rights over their own bodies.

Even before this ruling was finally overturned, women in the U.S. 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 in lieu of the recent reversal. Let’s take a closer look at the security concerns with these tracking apps and whether deleting them actually solves the problem.  

How do period and fertility trackers work?

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

The most basic period trackers ask you to input when your period starts and ends. Based on the data, it calculates an estimated date when your next period begins. Some apps also use this information to tell you when you are likely to ovulate and thus when would be a good time to conceive if you wish 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 the data from the period tracker might not be entirely accurate, an indication of pregnancy along with movement across state lines (to places where abortion is still legal) could together be used to build a case. 

All of this may seem like a hypothetical scenario, but one of the most popular period tracker apps, Flo, has actually shared users’ personal data in the past. The company has admitted that it uses data from the app for research purposes, but that this data comes to them in an aggregate manner without any identifiable features linking it to specific users. According to a 2019 investigative article by The Wall Street Journal, Flo has also shared user data with Facebook in the past. The app informed the company about specific users’ intentions to get pregnant and their period patterns 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 U.S. are becoming wary of the information they are sharing with period 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, sh** I’m pregnant!) and search history of pregnancy termination pills have been used to build abortion cases against women. 

Your phone’s location could also be used to track whether you visited an abortion clinic. In May this year, Vice spent US$160 and bought data from a location data firm that revealed where the people visiting Planned Parenthood, a reproductive care non-profit organization, came from and went afterward and how long they stayed there. This should tell us that it is really easy to use a person’s digital footprints to find out whether they have had an abortion (or an intention to have one), even if they don’t use fertility apps. Moreover, those who already had these apps on their phones don’t really know whether their data has already been sold or not. So, deleting these apps now might not even make a difference.

So, should you just swear off all trackers?

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

One of the period trackers that people have been rushing towards post the verdict reversal is Stardust, an app that combines period tracking with phases of the moon. The app promised to encrypt user data so that the government wouldn’t be able to access it. While this did bring in hundreds of downloads, an updated version of the app’s privacy policy revealed that the company will comply if asked to submit user data, albeit encrypted and anonymized. Another safe period tracking alternative you can use is Planned Parenthood’s app Spot On—which has always allowed users to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Besides, the app only stores data locally on the user’s smartphone, which can be deleted if the app is removed from the user’s phone. 

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

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Header image courtesy of Freepik


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