Should you worry about data from your period-tracking app being used against you?


It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of individuals within the US use period-tracking apps to plan forward, observe when they’re ovulating, and monitor different well being results. The apps might help sign when a interval is late.

After Politico revealed on May 2 a draft opinion from the Supreme Court indicating that Roe v. Wade, the legislation that ensures the constitutional proper to an abortion, could be overturned, individuals turned to social media. They had been expressing considerations about the privateness of this info – particularly for individuals who dwell in states with strict limits on abortion – and the way it could be used against them.

Many customers advisable instantly deleting all private data from period-tracking apps.

“If you are using an online period tracker or tracking your cycles through your phone, get off it and delete your data,” activist and legal professional Elizabeth McLaughlin stated in a viral tweet. “Now.”

Similarly, Eva Galperin, a cybersecurity knowledgeable, stated the data may “be used to prosecute you if you ever choose to have an abortion”.

That bought us questioning – are these considerations warranted, and will individuals who use period-tracking apps delete the data or the app utterly from their telephones? We requested the consultants.

Is your period-tracking app data shared?

Privacy insurance policies – particularly, whether or not the apps promote info to data brokers, use the data for promoting, share it for analysis, or preserve it solely inside the app – differ considerably amongst corporations.

“Does it encrypt? What’s its business model?” stated Lucia Savage, chief privateness and regulatory officer for Omada Health, a digital therapeutics firm. “If you can’t find terms of service or a privacy policy, don’t use that app.”

Period-tracking apps are sometimes not coated beneath the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, although if the corporate is billing for well being care providers, it may be. Still, HIPAA doesn’t stop the corporate from sharing de-identified data. If the app is free – and the corporate is monetising the data – then “you are the product” and HIPAA doesn’t apply, Savage stated.

A 2019 research revealed within the BMJ discovered that 79% of well being apps accessible via the Google Play retailer frequently shared consumer data and had been “far from transparent”.

When it involves advertising, a pregnant individual’s data is especially of excessive worth and might be exhausting to cover from the barrage of cookies and bots. Some period-tracking apps, which frequently ask for well being info moreover menstrual cycle particulars, participate within the broader web data financial system, too.

“The data can be sold to third parties, such as big tech companies; or to insurance companies, where it could then be used to make targeting decisions, such as whether to sell you a life insurance policy, or how much your premium should be,” stated Giulia De Togni, a well being and synthetic intelligence researcher on the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Flo Health, headquartered in London, settled with the Federal Trade Commission final yr over allegations that the corporate, after guarantees of privateness, shared well being data of customers utilizing its fertility-tracking app with exterior data analytics corporations, together with Facebook and Google.

In 2019, Ovia Health drew criticism for sharing data – although de-identified and aggregated – with employers, who may buy the period- and pregnancy-tracking app as a well being profit for his or her employees. People utilizing the employer-sponsored model should at present choose in for this sort of data-sharing.

Ovia’s roughly 10,000-word privateness coverage particulars how the corporate could share or promote de-identified well being data and makes use of monitoring applied sciences for commercials and analytics on its free, direct-to-consumer model.

For European residents, corporations should adjust to the stricter General Data Protection Regulation, which supplies possession of data to the buyer and requires consent earlier than gathering and processing private data. Consumers even have the appropriate to have their on-line data erased.

Companies have the choice of extending these rights to individuals dwelling within the US by way of their privateness insurance policies and phrases of providers. If they achieve this, the FTC can then maintain the businesses accountable for these commitments, stated Deven McGraw, Invitae’s head of data stewardship and the previous deputy director for well being info privateness on the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.

The period-tracking app Cycles, which is owned by Swedish firm Perigee, falls into this class. The firm guarantees its customers that it doesn’t do any promoting or promoting of data to 3rd events. Instead, it makes cash solely via subscriptions, spokesperson Raneal Engineer stated.

Concerned prospects have been reaching out to a different well being app, Clue, developed by an organization primarily based in Berlin. “We completely understand this anxiety, and we want to reassure you that your health data, particularly any data you track in Clue about pregnancies, pregnancy loss or abortion, is kept private and safe,” Clue co-CEO Carrie Walter stated in an emailed assertion.

Some states, akin to California and Virginia, have state-level legal guidelines that give customers possession over their info and whether or not it’s offered to 3rd events.

Data brokers commerce in different varieties of info, akin to location-tracking data for individuals who visited Planned Parenthood, which probably may very well be bought by legislation enforcement or authorities officers. Earlier this month, SafeGraph halted promoting cellphone-tracking data mapping the actions of individuals visiting Planned Parenthood, how lengthy they stayed, and the place they went afterward, after Vice reported shopping for every week’s value of data for US$160.

Also of concern is an organization’s stage of data safety, and the way prone it’s to a breach. “Hacking is criminal, there’s no question about it,” Savage stated. “But once it’s hacked, information can be released.”

Could this data be used in a felony prosecution?

The quick reply is sure.

“It’s almost surreal that in some states using a period app could get you into trouble,” stated McGraw. “But if an abortion is a crime, it could be accessed in building a case against you.”

This will depend on the place you dwell, however there are not any federal protections against that occuring from a privateness standpoint, she added. Last yr, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) launched the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which might prohibit data brokers from promoting private info to legislation enforcement or intelligence businesses with out court docket oversight. But the laws has but to make it to a vote.

Wyden advised KHN he was “absolutely” apprehensive about the prospect that individuals who search an abortion may very well be incriminated by their cellphone data.

“It is really an ominous prospect of women having their personal data weaponized against them,” stated Wyden. “These big data outfits,” he stated, “gotta decide – are they going to protect the privacy of women who do business with them? Or are they basically going to sell out to the highest bidder?”

In the absence of a federal legislation, if legislation enforcement does get a court-ordered subpoena, it may be troublesome for a corporation to withstand handing over data associated to a particular case.

“Given the breadth of surveillance laws in the US, if a company collects and keeps information, that information is susceptible to being compelled by law enforcement,” stated Amie Stepanovich, a privateness lawyer and vice chairman of US coverage on the Future of Privacy Forum. “They don’t necessarily have the ability to legally keep that information from law enforcement once the proper process has been undertaken.”

Still, even in states with strict abortion limits on the books, a lot will depend on how these legal guidelines are structured. Last month, as an illustration, a homicide cost against a Texas girl for a “self-induced abortion” was dismissed after the district legal professional discovered it didn’t violate state legislation, which criminalizes suppliers performing abortions, not the sufferers.

If Roe v. Wade is struck down, 14 states have so-called set off legal guidelines that may mechanically go into impact and ban abortion outright or after set home windows of time – as an illustration, six weeks or 15 weeks, in line with a KFF evaluation.

“It’s really complicated under the hood, but I don’t think people should blindly assume their data is safe from legal process,” Savage stated. It can rely on the corporate’s method to subpoenas, she added. Some will combat them whereas others is not going to.

Take Apple, for instance, which repeatedly resisted unlocking iPhones for legislation enforcement in high-profile instances just like the 2015 San Bernardino capturing. Data in Apple’s well being app, which incorporates its interval tracker, is “encrypted and inaccessible by default,” in line with the corporate’s privateness coverage. All the well being data within the app is saved on an individual’s cellphone, not saved on servers. But on the similar time, Savage stated, people who find themselves in low-income communities don’t all the time have an iPhone as a result of it’s an costly piece of kit.

Ovia’s privateness coverage says the corporate could give data to legislation enforcement if required by legislation or subpoena. The firm, nonetheless, stated in a press release that it has “never provided Ovia user data to any government, nor have we ever received any government requests for access to Ovia user data.” There can be an possibility in Ovia’s account settings to delete account data “entirely and permanently.”

Despite safeguards in place beneath the GDRP, interval trackers primarily based in Europe can nonetheless be subpoenaed as nicely, stated Lee Tien, a senior workers legal professional on the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Even (European Union) companies are subject to the US legal process, though it would take longer,” stated Tien. “The US has mutual legal treaties with other countries, including E.U. countries, and law enforcement knows how to exchange information.”

Has this sort of info been used by public officers or legislation enforcement earlier than?

Officials holding anti-abortion views have leveraged period-tracking info previously. In 2019, former Missouri state well being director Dr Randall Williams obtained a spreadsheet monitoring the menstrual durations of girls who visited Planned Parenthood in an effort to determine sufferers who had skilled an abortion that did not terminate the being pregnant.

During the Trump administration, former refugee resettlement chief and anti-abortion activist Scott Lloyd admitted to retaining observe of the menstrual cycles of adlescent migrants in an effort to cease them from getting abortions.

“We are now thinking of period trackers the way we’ve been thinking of facial recognition software for years,” Savage stated.

Should you delete your period-tracking app?

Experts stated it’s unlikely {that a} period-tracking app could be the only piece of proof used if somebody had been constructing a case against you for in search of an abortion.

“Frankly, I think if law enforcement or a civil investigator were trying to figure out who is having an abortion, there are probably several other venues that are more realistic or more immediately useful,” stated Stepanovich. “They would likely get a dump of information for the relevant data,” she continued, “such as trying to get the location information of everyone that got dropped off close to an abortion center, which is a much smaller set of data, or getting people who called abortion hotlines at certain times.”

Stepanovich added that so long as somebody is utilizing a smartphone with any sort of app on it there’s a danger that data may very well be obtained and used as a part of a felony or civil prosecution. Bottom line: The solely strategy to keep away from danger altogether is to not use a smartphone.

But McGraw took a extra cautious method: “If I lived in a state where I thought that data might end up in the hands of law enforcement, I wouldn’t track (my period) at all.”

Ultimately, individuals who use period-tracking apps ought to concentrate on the danger of utilizing the expertise whereas contemplating the profit it brings to their life.

“You have to think about what you need in terms of period tracking,” stated Tien. “You have to weigh and ask yourself, ‘How much does this convenience really matter to me?’” – Kaiser Health News/Tribune News Service

(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is likely one of the three main working packages at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on well being points to the nation.)

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