“Remove this app now!” Are period tracking apps safe to use in a post-Roe world?

Check your privacy settings. And think carefully about your choice of period tracking app.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that gave women federal legal protection to have abortions. It will now be up to each state to set its own abortion laws.

Some 13 US states have “trigger laws” to ban abortion immediately, while a similar number will ban or severely restrict abortion in the coming weeks and months. Ultimately, about 40 million women nationwide lose access to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a public health think tank that supports abortion access.

As a result of the ruling, women have expressed concerns and fears on social media about the period data recorded in their period tracking apps, and some apps have acknowledged that they may be forced to transmit information. data if compelled to do so by court order or subpoena. . The concern is that information about a woman’s menstrual cycle could be used as evidence against her if she seeks to terminate a pregnancy after a state’s deadline for a legal abortion.

Once users enter their menstrual data, these apps can track women’s ovulation cycles and make recommendations to help with birth control planning. Women living in states where abortion is effectively banned worry that companies will hand over their personal information.

Gina Neff, professor of technology and sociology at the University of Oxford, wrote on Twitter that app users should realize that post-Roe US health privacy laws do not protect uploaded data voluntarily on these apps, especially when women sign the confidentiality agreements when signing up for these apps.

“Eliminate all digital traces of any menstrual tracking. Please,” she wrote. More than 50,000 people retweeted his message calling on women to delete their menstrual tracking digital fingerprint:

Pregnancy and period tracking apps could pose a risk to users by exposing their information to third parties, according to a report by Atlas VPN who analyzed 10 of these pregnancy and period tracking apps. “Applications dedicated to women’s health, such as pregnancy or period trackers, massively collect sensitive data and share it with third parties,” the report said.

“Dangerous” privacy settings

For example, pregnancy tracking app BabyCenter has 15 data trackers in its Android version and 20 data trackers in its Apple iOS version, and some of them come from third parties, according to the report.

What to Expect, a pregnancy and baby tracker app from the same parent company, has 19 permissions on Android devices and nine permissions on its iOS version. Of the 19 permissions, three were deemed “unsafe” by Google’s protection level standards, meaning they grant the app additional access to restricted data, such as the user’s location. , contact details, microphone and camera.

Daily Health Group, the parent group for both apps, is taking steps to protect its users in light of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, a spokesperson told MarketWatch. “The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has highlighted valid concerns about the protection of reproductive health information,” the spokesperson said. “As we reflect on this change, we are re-evaluating and further strengthening how we protect our users and their privacy.”

Glow, the San Francisco, Calif.-based parent company of several pregnancy and period tracking health apps, has released a statement on Twitter saying it values ​​user trust and promised to “uncompromisingly protect the privacy and personal health information of our users.”

“We fully realize that data privacy rules and regulations are complex and constantly changing,” he added. “We promise that we will always strive to do better, listen to our users, and continue to uncompromisingly protect the privacy and personal health information of our users.”

However, some users say they want guarantees that their information will never be passed on to third parties.

Candy Calderon, health and wellness coach, tweeted in response to Glow’s statement on user privacy: “What we need is ‘we will NEVER sell/share your data’…it’s simple! We need a definite NO. What I take away from this statement is that you will bow to pressure to share our data if it comes [to] that or closing the business. As if there was room for that to happen. Remove the app now!

Some apps have insisted they will vigorously resist any demands for user information from state governments and have said they will shut down their businesses before giving in to such a demand. “We would rather shut down the company than be complicit in this type of government abuse and violation of privacy,” GP Apps, the parent company of the Period Tracker app, said in a blog post. .

“Users can use Period Tracker without a Period Tracker online account and the data will only be stored locally on the user’s device,” he added. “If the user wishes to access the online backup function of Period Tracker, he must create an account for the regular and automatic backup of data on a secure server.”

Ovia Health, a Boston, Mass.-based company that provides fertility, pregnancy and parenting apps, told MarketWatch that it does not sell user data to data brokers, adding that it protects user data with stringent security controls. It also provides options for a user to delete their data but said so may need to preserve data to comply with a valid government request.

“Please note, however, that if you seek to delete your data after Ovia has received a governmental or other legally binding request or where your data is otherwise subject to a preservation order, Ovia will be required to retain your data in order to comply with the request,” the company said.

“Like any other company or person subject to U.S. jurisdiction, Ovia may receive a legally binding request (such as a court order or subpoena) from the government or law enforcement agencies” , he added. It directed users to: How does Ovia respond to data requests.

Anonymous use of health apps

Other applications allow users to log in anonymously. Flo, a period-tracking app based in London, England, announced an “anonymous mode” on Thursday. It will allow its users to use the service without registering personally identifiable information, such as name and email address. In a statement, Flo said the feature was already in development, but the Roe decision accelerated the release.

“We care deeply about the privacy of our users, which is why Flo does not share health data with any company other than Flo, and you can delete it at any time,” the company told MarketWatch. “We strongly believe that women’s health data should be kept with the utmost care and confidentiality. In March 2022, Flo conducted an external, independent privacy audit which confirmed that there were no gaps or weaknesses in our privacy practices.

Perigee, based in Malmö, Sweden, is the parent company of the Cycles fertility tracking app and two other health tracking apps. Asked about its response to data-sharing issues that arose in the United States after Roe, the company told MarketWatch that it has data protection policies in place to help users remain anonymous, including by logging into the app without an account, which means Perigee will never have access to their data.

“Currently, we are doing our best to inform our users of their rights, how we protect their data and assure them that if the United States authorities or any third party authority ask for their data, they can be assured that we will not hand it over. simply.more than.As we are governed by EU law, this allows us additional security under the GDPR rules that we comply with,” a Perigee spokesperson said.

(Clue, Stardust, GP Apps and Glow did not respond to a request for comment.)

ExpressVPN Vice President Harold Li told MarketWatch that he saw a 5% increase in people visiting the website from the United States after the Supreme Court’s ruling was released, likely concerned about their own pregnancy and/or menstrual data. (A VPN is a virtual private network; using one is a way to keep the data on your device more private.)

However, using a VPN wouldn’t necessarily protect users from trackers while using an app, Li said. user data with third-party services and/or using the data against women who are considering abortions, a VPN cannot prevent that,” Li said. Instead, many Twitter users suggested use a VPN for online browsing purposes to obtain abortion-related information, which can help encrypt one’s online traffic and hide one’s virtual location.

Women shouldn’t be too concerned about using personal health-tracking apps because they’re not the primary form of evidence most likely to be used in abortion lawsuits, Kendra Albert said. public interest technology attorney at Harvard Law School’s Cyber ​​Law Clinic. The greatest threat, she wrote in a Average positionis a third party such as a hospital staff member or relative who reports a woman to the police.

“If tracking your period is useful to you, you don’t need to stop tracking your period, although you can choose to switch to an app that collects less data and stores it locally,” she writes.

About Donald J. Beadle

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