Period tracker app users delete, citing privacy concerns after abortion ban

Period-tracking apps are raising privacy concerns for their users following Ohio’s abortion ban — and many consumers say they’ve taken them down.

Menstrual cycle apps are used to help millions of people understand and predict their period. Since the state implemented the six-week abortion ban on Friday, some users, like Ohio’s Angela Lin, say the app they’ve been using for years needs to go.

“It was because of the privacy concerns that I started reading with these period tracker apps,” Lin said. “Even more now with the Dobbs decision.”

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the conservatives in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the only abortion provider in Mississippi, which sued Thomas Dobbs, the state’s health director. The clinic filed a lawsuit in 2020 after a law was passed banning abortions after 15 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

Just hours after that ruling, Ohio implemented a six-week abortion ban that has no exceptions for rape or incest.

In 2017, a Mississippi woman named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after experiencing a stillbirth. Prosecutors accused her of researching abortion drugs online, according to details in the SCOTUS filing.

“They used this to prove she intended to commit a crime,” said privacy attorney Bethany Corbin.

FemTech, or women’s technology, advocates cover services specifically focused on women’s health. Corbin is one of the lawyers specializing in menstrual cycle apps.

“If law enforcement has access to this reproductive health data, they can use it to show, ‘yes, this woman had an abortion here or she considered an abortion or she went to XYZ Company and the only reason to go is to get an abortion,” she said.

Learning that her data could be subpoenaed by the government forced her to delete her app, Lin said.

“We have to be very careful, especially with new knowledge that our personal data could be used against us in future abortion cases, the fact that prosecutors can subpoena apps that are on our devices, including including these menstrual trackers, and use that against us,” she said.

Corbin shared that most likely not all menstrual trackers fall under HIPAA privacy protections — but it’s not just subpoenas that can reveal data.

“To a large extent, these FemTech companies can do whatever they want with the data as long as they are transparent about how they use and disclose it in their privacy policies,” the attorney said.

But unlike other red states, Ohio’s abortion laws don’t prosecute the pregnant person.

Consumers can use these products, but abortion providers or service organization advocates could be sued for their online activity, said Jessie Hill, a reproductive care attorney.

“Even if the pregnant person isn’t being sued, that doesn’t apply to people who might be helping them,” Hill said.

However, she wants to give users a warning.

“Just because the law doesn’t say people can be prosecuted for this behavior doesn’t mean prosecutors aren’t going to try,” the expert said. “There may be prosecutors who may be misinformed about the nuances of the law, who may be looking to push the envelope, who may still be trying to bring these prosecutions.”

Even if the case is closed, once someone has been arrested it could be a “difficult and damaging process”, she said.

Cybersecurity could also become a bigger concern, Corbin said.

“A hacker could identify some of this data, he could go to this woman and say, ‘I have your health data here, it shows you had an abortion on date X and if you don’t pay me money, I’m going to take this to law enforcement and they’re going to prosecute you and criminalize you,” the attorney said.

Basically, it raises the ransom stakes, she added.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Lin said. “We have more resources at our disposal, but we have fewer rights than Americans 50 years ago.”

Popular app Clue said that since it is a European company, it is able to withhold the information. Their full statement is below.

We have received messages from users concerned about how their data could be used by US courts if Roe vs Wade is overturned. We fully understand this anxiety and want to reassure you that your health data, especially any data you track in Clue on pregnancies, pregnancy losses, or abortions, remains private and secure.

Ensuring the security of sensitive Clue user data is fundamental to our empowerment mission, and it’s also fundamental to our business model, as it depends on the trust of our community. Additionally, as a European company, Clue is required under European law (the General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR) to apply special protections to our users’ reproductive health data. We won’t disclose it.”

After being accused of sharing user data with outside data analytics vendors, while guaranteeing the information would remain private, Flo Health reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2021, the FTC said. The site reportedly shared data with Facebook and Google, among others.

They have since updated their privacy policy. Following the decision Roe v. Wade, the team tweeted that they would add an anonymous mode so no one could be identified.

However, they “may also share some of your personal data” if subpoenaed, according to their privacy policy.

Apple Health said that although they share with third parties, users can opt out at any time. The data is also encrypted, according to their privacy policy. However, they will comply with law enforcement and review “all legal requests to ensure there is a valid legal basis for each request”.

Follow WEWS State House Reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.

Lance B. Holton