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Why US women are deleting their period tracking apps

The trend to stop using the applications started even before the highest court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade due to worries about the prosecution

In recent days, a lot of American women have removed period tracking apps from their smartphones out of concern that the information they collected would be used against them in future criminal proceedings in states where abortion has been made illegal.

The movement gained momentum when the Supreme Court on Friday withdrew the legal right to abortion, continuing a trend that began last month when a draft opinion showed the court was about to reverse Roe v. Wade.

These worries are not unfounded. Cycle trackers gather, store, and occasionally share part of the user data of their users, much like many other apps. Prosecutors could ask for information gathered by these applications while compiling a case against someone in a state where abortion is illegal. Sara Spector, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Texas, said that if authorities wanted to arrest a woman for having an illegal abortion, they could subpoena any software on her phone, even period trackers.

However, each business has its own storage and privacy policies that govern how they utilize and how long they keep data, Spector continued.

Why are cycle monitors so popular? According to a 2019 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about a third of American women have been utilizing them. From family planning to seeing early warning signs of health problems to picking the ideal time for a vacation, they have made women’s lives easier in a variety of ways.

According to a 2019 study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), 79 percent of health apps that are related to medicine and are available through the Google Play store, such as those that manage medications, patient adherence, prescriptions, or prescribing information, frequently share user data and are “far from transparent.” However, a lot of the major players have improved recently.

Flo and Clue, are two of the most well-liked period trackers in the US, with a combined user base of more than 55 million. The Berlin-based app Clue claimed that it was “dedicated to protecting” its customers’ personal health information and that it complied with all GDPR regulations in Europe. According to the company’s website, the app gathers device data, event and usage data, a user’s IP address, and health and sensitive data, which it may use to enhance the app and its services and stop abusive use of them. However, Clue claims it does not track users’ exact whereabouts and does not keep sensitive personal information without a user’s express consent. Additionally, the business tweeted that it would be under a “primary legal duty under European law” to refrain from disclosing any personal health information about its customers and that it would “not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of their users’ health data by US authorities.”

However, Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International, a global NGO that conducts research, brings legal action, and advocates against the misuse of technology and data by governments and corporations said that just because data is being processed by a European company doesn’t mean that it is completely immune from US prosecution.

“In this situation, it is not very important that GDPR applies. European businesses typically accede to valid legal requests from US authorities. Additionally, a European business may host data outside the EU, subjecting it to other legal frameworks and cross-border agreements, Audibert continued. Additionally, she emphasized that utilizing an app with a European base won’t shield women from direct data requests from the courts. However, it may be a little better choice than utilizing one located in the US because US businesses are more readily compelled to cooperate with requests from US authorities and courts. When it comes to European ones, enforcement is more challenging.

Flo has already faced criticism for disclosing user data. According to the company’s website, it only utilizes data “for research operations” and only “de-identified or aggregated data, which cannot be connected” with particular individuals. However, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the software alerted Facebook when a user was on their period or if they wanted to become pregnant. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Flo came to an agreement in 2021. According to the settlement, Flo must have its privacy policy reviewed independently and have user consent before sharing sensitive health information. Flo made no admission of guilt.

An “Anonymous mode” that can assist keep customers’ data safe in any situation will soon be available, Flo revealed on Friday.

In response to a request for comment, the corporation remained silent.

In the days following the supreme court’s ruling, the period tracker Stardust—a relatively recent creation with an emphasis on astrology—became the most popular free software on iOS. The Twitter bio for Stardust describes it as a “privacy first period tracking app.” However, as Vice News noted, the corporation stated in its privacy policy that it will abide by a court order or not if authorities want customer data. The information was allegedly “anonymized” and “encrypted.”

In accordance with their privacy policy as of Monday, “We may disclose your anonymized, encrypted information to third parties in order to protect the legal rights, safety and security of the company and the users of our services; enforce our terms of service; prevent fraud; and comply with or respond to law enforcement inquiries, legal processes, or requests for cooperation by a government or other entity, whether or not legally required.”

Stardust amended its privacy policy to read “when legally needed” rather than “whether or not legally required” in response to Vice’s request for comment.

A request for comment from Stardust was not immediately complied with.

People are urged to download the Spot On app by Planned Parenthood. The company stated in a statement: “Users who want to track their periods and birth control always have the option to remain anonymous by using the Spot On app without registering an account.” This way, birth control or period information is only saved locally to a person’s phone and is always erasable by uninstalling the app.

When it comes to period trackers, there are other options than third-party applications. Apple’s Health app includes a built-in cycle tracker that gives more privacy than most third-party apps. One can choose to store the encrypted data on their phone or computer instead than in iCloud, and this can be done in just a few simple steps.

The best method to safeguard private health information, according to Evan Greer, deputy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future, is to exclusively utilize apps that save information locally rather than in the cloud. Because any app where a business [that could be served with a subpoena] has access to the data of its users could be subject to a legal request.

Tech policy consultant Eva Blum-Dumontet said, “It is typical that people are viewing technology and programs that we trusted differently in times of anxiety.

When discussing whether women should remove these apps, Blum-Dumontet stated, “I think we have to think about why they use them in the first place.” When ladies are in agony, these trackers help them control their menstrual cycles.

Blum-Dumontet emphasized that “period trackers should adjust their processes,” as opposed to urging consumers to alter their behavior.

They ought to have avoided acquiring so much data in the first place.
We wouldn’t be having this discussion right now if they started using techniques like local data storage and only storing what is absolutely essential.
They still have time to make the correct decision, she said.

She went on to say that the businesses that have been profiting off of women’s bodies “ought to look very seriously about how they will protect their users.” “They haven’t always been the best when it comes to sharing data. The only way companies can compete in this industry and establish their credibility is by strengthening their privacy practices and offering users more control over their data, the expert claimed. “It won’t be good PR for them if any of these apps are utilized in court against their users.”

Melissa, a 27-year-old mother from Texas who is only identified by her first name so as not to compromise her career, claimed that she removed the app out of concern that her state may use the information about her missed periods against her when she travels.

“I will really miss using the app. I have used it for a wide range of purposes, including tracking my ovulation and forecasting my mood swings. When my app tells me that this could be typical for this stage of my cycle, I sometimes wake up angry and have no idea why until then,” she continued. Melissa adds that she had hoped to use it for future conceptions but is unable to do so now.

Although period trackers received the majority of the attention on Friday, experts cautioned that other applications might also be used against users in criminal prosecution.

Google Maps or any random mobile game might be used against someone just as easily as menstruation monitoring software, according to Greer. “While we should all be aware of the risks and take measures, it’s not appropriate to place all of the responsibility on people. Companies and government officials must take prompt action to safeguard individuals.

Concerns about period tracking data are a part of a larger discussion about how much personal data smartphones gather. Women’s rights groups from throughout the world are advising users to be more cautious about their online presence in general, not just with regard to period trackers.

Many women can benefit greatly from cycle tracking applications, according to Jonathan Lord, UK medical director for MSI Reproductive Choices. But any information could be used against you.

Lord claims that until “abortion is treated like all other healthcare – regulated like all other medical treatments, but not criminalized,” this threat will persist.

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