Period-tracking apps are convenient, easy to use, and vital aid many women rely on for planning and decision-making in their personal lives. To perform their tasks, these apps gather intimate user data. In light of the recent overturning of Roe v Wade in the US and similar rulings elsewhere in the world, concerns are being raised that the implementation of strict anti-abortion laws could threaten the safety of period-tracking data.
Data about our interests and behaviour is gathered with each electronic interaction. From shop loyalty cards to social media preferences, our daily lives can be represented in digital data sets that businesses are happy to pay a lot of money for.
If our personal information is being gathered, with and without users’ knowledge, from all over the internet, who exactly gets to see it and what do they use it for?
Since the overturning of Roe v Wade, data security advocates have been pointing out that together with your bank information, social security number, and other similarly sensitive information, another type of personal information has become potentially incriminating—the data gathered by your period-tracking app.
Whether you know it or not, the digital footprint each of us has out there in cyberspace is considerable. Every website you visit collects certain data points about what you were doing there. Once something has been posted or executed online, it can be very hard to get rid of later, and we aren’t just talking about our embarrassing college-era photos on Facebook.
Thanks to a recent push for regulation, most notably Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), most websites are now required to ask for your “cookie preferences”. Having to stop and click on several buttons when browsing the web may be annoying, but there is more here than meets the eye and it may be worth reading through the text.
Cookies are small data sets of your activity that websites record and use to “remember” you when you visit again. They may collect as little as your username and password, the items in your shopping cart, time spent on the website, and your search preferences, or they may store more complex information such as your online activity patterns, including which websites you visited prior to the one you just clicked “yes” on. That is how we get targeted ads about things we seemingly just thought about or looked up once.
Cookies are usually stored on your device, but data is also attached to your profiles and websites online.
Whenever you accept third-party cookies, you are giving a website the green light to gather complex information about what you do online.
Data about your browser searches, digital subscriptions, and internet purchases is a valuable commodity and can be used for many different purposes. Most apps and websites make extra “free money” by selling the user data they collect to third parties, usually data brokers who sell it on to advertising companies, credit agencies, and commercial partners.
This information has value because it can be used, for example, to generate sales by identifying the most likely consumers for targeted ads, save money by helping businesses anticipate inventory needs, or improve products by analysing user preferences.
And, of course, your government can access web data on request for security reasons. This is where the infamous Roe v Wade ruling comes into play.
We know that law enforcement and security agencies protect the public by regularly monitoring suspicious online activity to identify and eliminate security threats. However, since the US Supreme Court overturned its 50-year-old law giving women the right to abortion, women everywhere have become much more vulnerable to attacks on their safety and privacy, regardless if they have ever had or considered abortion, or not.
Anyone familiar with the basics of the female reproductive system will know that periods are not always regular and that miscarriages are extremely common, especially in the first weeks of pregnancy before the embryo has developed into a foetus. This is true for even the healthiest women. About 1 in 5 recorded pregnancies result in miscarriage, but if we include an estimate of early undetected miscarriages that number could be closer to 1 in 3.
In jurisdictions that favour a radical reading of the new abortion laws, all miscarriages, even early ones, become suspicious and can be used as a basis for what essentially amounts to murder or manslaughter allegations.
A number of such cases have already been recorded in different parts of the world. This can be an unspeakably traumatising experience for an already traumatised woman. Many people are now raising concerns that access to period-tracking data could facilitate a sort of witch hunt by revealing women with “suspicious” log histories.
Not only would that kind of digital tracking overstep the privacy of all period-app users, but in seeking to prosecute women who have had illegal abortions, suspicion would inevitably fall on any users with unclear data: women with irregular periods, women who have miscarried, and, yes, even those of us who sometimes forget to log our periods in the first place. As ridiculous as this sounds, a dedicated local government set on controlling women could make it the new reality.
In places where abortion is strictly criminalized, law enforcement can demand access to relevant data without a warrant. And, in any case, interested parties can easily buy the data just like any company would.
This is why the alarm was raised in the summer of 2022 following the historic ruling on Roe v Wade in the United States, with some even calling for the elimination of period apps.
Yes and no. On the one hand, information pertaining to a person’s health is considered private and sensitive. Any healthcare provider would face serious consequences for sharing it with others without express permission.
However, period tracking apps and other health-related digital services are not considered healthcare providers, so they are not required to provide specific protections or adhere to privacy laws such as America’s HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Whether or not an app chooses to share your data is entirely up to them.
Period tracking apps contain information about your period history, the length of the menstrual cycle and changes within, the estimated ovulation times and fertility windows, and, usually, a list of symptoms that you have experienced, as well as other sensitive data such as sexual activity logs and pregnancy tracking. All of this should be personal.
There are several steps you can take to make sure your data does not fall into wrong hands.
Before you download a new app, read up. Is it trustworthy and reliable? Are there real people with a public track record behind it? Search the business name and check if recent reviews are available.
Now take a look at the additional information the app requests:
Does your health app really need access to your contact list, camera, and other potentially sensitive information? Probably not. Can you refuse access and still use the app and all its functions? If not, think twice about downloading.
Location information is often also included in the photos you take. Check your phone’s privacy settings.
Before providing websites with personal information, check your cookie settings. You can refuse all non-essential cookies for individual websites and make choices about privacy in the browser settings on your computer.
And, finally, another way of protecting your privacy is by advocating for stronger privacy laws, locally and on a larger scale. Although we work to destigmatise talking about periods, each person’s experience is personal. Your boss, city mayor, or state government have no right to your personal health information unless you choose to share it yourself.
Stay safe and read the fine print in cookie requests and app descriptions.
Download WomanLog now: