May 22

Should You Worry About Data From Your Period-Tracking App Being Used Against You?

By fitness

May 22, 2022



By Hannah Norman, Kaiser Health News and Victoria Knight

It’s estimated that tens of millions of individuals within the U.S. 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 landmark resolution that ensures the constitutional proper to an abortion, could be overturned, folks turned to social media. They have been expressing considerations in regards to the privateness of this info — particularly for individuals who reside in states with strict limits on abortion — and the way it could be used in opposition to them.

Many customers really helpful instantly deleting all private information 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 said in a viral tweet. “Now.”

Similarly, Eva Galperin, a cybersecurity skilled, said the data might “be used to prosecute you if you ever choose to have an abortion.”

That obtained us questioning — are these considerations warranted, and may individuals who use period-tracking apps delete the info or the app fully from their telephones? We requested the specialists.


iStock.com/Tirachard

Is Your Period-Tracking App Data Shared?

Privacy insurance policies — particularly, whether or not the apps promote info to information brokers, use the info for promoting, share it for analysis, or preserve it solely throughout the app — range considerably amongst firms.

“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 below 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 information. If the app is free — and the corporate is monetizing the info — then “you are the product” and HIPAA doesn't apply, Savage stated.

A 2019 examine revealed within the BMJ discovered that 79% of well being apps obtainable by means of the Google Play retailer recurrently shared consumer information and have been “far from transparent.”

When it involves advertising, a pregnant individual’s information is especially of excessive worth and may be laborious to cover from the barrage of cookies and bots. Some period-tracking apps, which regularly ask for well being info in addition to menstrual cycle particulars, participate within the broader web information 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 information of customers utilizing its fertility-tracking app with exterior information analytics firms, together with Facebook and Google.

In 2019, Ovia Health drew criticism for sharing information — although de-identified and aggregated — with employers, who might buy the period- and pregnancy-tracking app as a well being profit for his or her employees. People utilizing the employer-sponsored model should presently 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 information and makes use of monitoring applied sciences for commercials and analytics on its free, direct-to-consumer model.

For European residents, firms should adjust to the stricter General Data Protection Regulation, which provides possession of knowledge to the patron and requires consent earlier than gathering and processing private information. Consumers even have the best to have their on-line information erased.

Companies have the choice of extending these rights to folks residing within the U.S. through 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 knowledge 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 knowledge to 3rd events. Instead, it makes cash solely by means of subscriptions, spokesperson Raneal Engineer stated.

Concerned clients have been reaching out to a different well being app, Clue, developed by an organization based mostly 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, equivalent to California and Virginia, have state-level legal guidelines that give customers possession over their info and whether or not it's bought to 3rd events.

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

Also of concern is an organization’s degree of knowledge 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 Criminal Prosecution?

The brief 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 reside, however there aren't any federal protections in opposition to that taking place 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 information brokers from promoting private info to legislation enforcement or intelligence companies with out court docket oversight. But the laws has but to make it to a vote.

Wyden instructed KHN he was “absolutely” nervous in regards to the probability that individuals who search an abortion may very well be incriminated by their cellphone information.

“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 tough for an organization to withstand handing over information associated to a selected case.

“Given the breadth of surveillance laws in the U.S., 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 U.S. 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, for example, a homicide cost in opposition to a Texas lady 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 routinely go into impact and ban abortion outright or after set home windows of time — for example, 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 depend upon the corporate’s method to subpoenas, she added. Some will battle them whereas others won't.

Take Apple, for instance, which repeatedly resisted unlocking iPhones for legislation enforcement in high-profile instances just like the 2015 San Bernardino taking pictures. 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 information 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 at all times have an iPhone as a result of it's an costly piece of apparatus.

Ovia’s privateness coverage says the corporate could give information to legislation enforcement if required by legislation or subpoena. The firm, nevertheless, stated in an announcement 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 information “entirely and permanently.”

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

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

Has This Kind of Information Been Used by Public Officials or Law Enforcement Before?

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 ladies who visited Planned Parenthood in an effort to determine sufferers who had skilled an abortion that didn't terminate the being pregnant.

During the Trump administration, former refugee resettlement chief and anti-abortion activist Scott Lloyd admitted to preserving observe of the menstrual cycles of minor 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 have been constructing a case in opposition to you for searching for 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 kind of app on it there's a threat that information may very well be obtained and used as a part of a prison or civil prosecution. Bottom line: The solely method to keep away from threat 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 pay attention to the chance 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?’”

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 without doubt one of the three main working applications at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on well being points to the nation.

Subscribe to KHN's free Morning Briefing.





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