Should I delete my period tracking app? What you need to know about the data it collects

Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court of the United States eradicated the constitutional right to abortion. The ruling sets back nearly half a century of women’s rights and access to proper reproductive health care and puts the health and safety of millions of people across the country at risk.

Thirteen states in this country – Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming – have “trigger laws,” i.e. total or near-total bans on abortion went into effect immediately after deer was overthrown. According Guttmacher Instituteat least 26 states in total are expected to pass anti-abortion legislation and impose severe access restrictions in the coming weeks.

Due to the severity of restrictions in dozens of these states – according to the Center for Reproductive Rightsthe procedure is now illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Dakota. There are serious concerns about period-tracking apps and the data they collect.

On the day the Supreme Court’s ruling was released, a cascade of social media posts urged users to immediately delete their period-tracking apps. “Remove your period tracking apps today,” @jkbibliophile advised on Twitter, while @bluealliums wrote: “DELETE YOUR PERIOD TRACKING APPS. THIS IS NOT PARANOIA. YOUR STATE CAN SEE YOUR DATA.

One of the most popular period trackers, Flo, has a “strong community” of 220 million users, according to its website. Another well-known application, Index, reports 12 million monthly users. Meanwhile, Apple offers a cycle tracking metric in its Health app, allowing iPhone users to record their menstrual cycles directly on their phone. “If you log your cycles, Health can predict your next period and your fertile window,” the app says.

While handy for planning and monitoring your reproductive health, new concerns have arisen about personal information that may come from period-tracking apps. Here’s everything you need to know.

How necessary is it for users to remove policy-tracking apps?

“It depends on their situation,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said. “There are some concerns about period-tracking apps as a source of very sensitive information, but the reality is that there are so many other ways our technology can reveal the decisions we make for providers. doctors we are going to visit, [which] users really need to think about…probably more than a period tracking app.

Givens specifies such sources of sensitive information as your online browsing history, your search history, websites that could reveal the purchase of certain medications (i.e. medications related to abortion or reproductive health) and location data. Several apps on our phones collect location data, “including if you had to travel out of state to visit an abortion provider, for example,” notes Givens. It is important to disable location tracking on your phone itself, but also in individual apps.

“There is the substance of your communications themselves. Your texts and emails, if you contact people or talk about [abortion or reproductive healthcare], you want to make sure that this information is also private,” she adds. “In a police investigation, they can access all of this information.”

She suggests muting text or encrypted messages when communicating via text or email, but another option is to have all conversations face-to-face and leave your phone at home.

If you choose to delete your period tracker app, you must first clear all data. “Sometimes just deleting the app from your phone doesn’t delete company information,” says Givens. Read the fine print, understand their privacy policy and whether it allows you to delete the data yourself.

“If the app is sharing information with a third party, it’s often buried deep in the fine print that no one actually reads. So what you want to do is look for vendors that make very outspoken promises about security. of your data,” says Givens. “We don’t have a federal privacy law in the United States, but we do have a law that compels companies to keep their promises.”

Is an application’s “anonymous mode” safe and effective?

On Tuesday, June 28 – four days after the SCOTUS ruling – Flo announced its new “anonymous mode”, which will allow users to omit personal information including their name, email address and “technical identifiers”.

“In light of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, some of you have expressed concern about how third parties may be accessing users’ health data from digital services,” the company wrote in an email to users. “We have heard your concerns and want to make it clear that we will do everything in our power to protect our users’ data and privacy.”

“If Flo received an official request to identify a user by name or email, anonymous mode would prevent us from being able to connect data to an individual, meaning we could not fulfill the request,” continues the message.

The app further emphasized that whether or not users choose to engage in anonymous mode, their data will remain “safe and secure”.

“It’s a good step,” says Givens. “It is still not enough for users to be fully protected. Users really need to be aware of other ways law enforcement or individuals could track their information or gain access to their information.

The last part of Givens’ quote is particularly important to note. She says that in May 2021, Texas passed an extreme abortion law that allows private citizens to sue anyone they believe may have ‘aiding or abetting’ someone seeking abortion. abort – this could be abortion funds and providers, friends, family, even the Uber driver who might have taken someone to their appointment.

Take steps to disable location tracking, disable third-party ad tracking, and reject cookies, so that your search history or “breadcrumbs,” as Given calls them, cannot be discovered by ” bounty hunters”.

“It’s one of the risks I’m most concerned about, because it makes people turn to data brokers or scavenge online to try to uncover people’s private health information,” she says. .

Are there offline alternatives to track your period?

If you decide to remove your online tracking app, there are alternatives to tracking your period offline. Dr. Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG, INTIMINA sexual and reproductive health expert and gynecologist practicing in New York, offers a paper-and-pencil method.

“Back then, women kept paper calendars with codes and marks to track their cycle. This practice is still applicable and allows for privacy,” she says. “Other alternatives include the basal body temperature tracking, ovulation kits and fertility kits, which can also be used to track privately.”

If you’ve used your period tracker app to set alarms as reminders to take your birth control, you can tag them on your phone with a discrete or unobtrusive name.

“Again, on the eve of the technical surveillance, women left the pill next to their toothbrush for their daily reminder, because most do not forget to brush their teeth!”, she notes .

The bottom line

As Givens noted, whether or not to remove your period tracker app depends on your situation. If you live in a trigger law state or a state that is expected to pass severely restrictive abortion bans in the next few months, you might want to consider removing the app. But, as Givens also pointed out, there are so many other factors that could implicate an individual, should law enforcement seize their phone and use its data as evidence to convict them. These include text messages, emails, search history, visiting certain websites, and location tracking. To better protect you and your privacy, turn off location tracking, reject cookies on websites, use decoded or encrypted messages, and, where possible, find trusted friends and family members to have conversations about abortion and reproductive services in private and safe environments.

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