Period-tracking apps can help prosecute users, advocates fear

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving it up to each state to decide whether or not to allow abortion procedures, prompted abortion rights advocates to urge women using period trackers and other digital pregnancy-tracking apps. reproductive health to remove them.

“If you’re using an online period tracker or tracking your cycles through your phone, quit it and delete your data. Now,” tweeted attorney Elizabeth McLaughlin, founder of the nonprofit Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership.

McLaughlin’s post, which was posted the day Politico reported the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade in early May has since been retweeted over 59,000 times. The Supreme Court has released its formal decision on Roe v. Wade on June 24.

Abortion rights advocates are sounding the alarm not just over the use of period-tracking apps, but also the potentially incriminating digital trail of geolocation data, online transactions and search histories on the Web.

“It’s not just that we’re going back to a time before Roe v. Wade,” Leah Fowler, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Houston, told the “Start Here” podcast. ABC News. “We do it with the surveillance apparatus in place that we couldn’t have imagined even then,” she said.

A smartphone screen displays a period tracking app, November 19, 2015.

Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Fears of criminal prosecution have risen among abortion rights advocates as abortion-banning states institute penalties, which include possible fines and jail time, for abortion providers. For example, Arkansas has made performing or attempting to perform an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. The only exception is if the mother’s life is in danger.

Kentucky and Louisiana have had courts issue temporary freezes on their bans, which had said anyone who performs or attempts to perform an abortion will be charged and face jail time and/or fines.

According to Fowler, regardless of their privacy policies, companies could still be forced to hand over consumer data during a criminal investigation.

And the data could also be at risk in civil litigation, Fowler said, through “discovery requests or other civil investigative requests,” which aren’t necessarily part of a criminal investigation. .

“You don’t just need to be in a place that has made [abortion] a felony or consider it a homicide subject to legally valid inquiries,” Fowler said.

These period-tracking apps have millions of users every month who use the technology to better understand and help monitor their reproductive health. Apps can tell you when to expect your next period, if you’re pregnant and what stage you’re at, when you’re most fertile to conceive, and what kinds of symptoms you usually experience.

In June, politicians released a statement asking President Joe Biden to “clarify[y] protection of sensitive health and location data” as part of a broader call to protect abortion rights.

This week, Axios reported that Biden plans to ask the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumer data privacy, particularly in the context of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Last year, period-tracking app Flo settled a complaint with the FTC alleging the company was selling users’ health data to Facebook and Google, as well as marketing and analytics firms. , allegedly in violation of their own privacy policy.

As part of the settlement, the app agreed to an “independent review of its privacy practices” and pledged to “obtain consent from app users before sharing their health information.”

In the settlement, Flo also “does not admit[ted] nor deny[d] none of the allegations.”

The day Roe v. Wade was canceled, the company tweeted that it would be will soon launch “anonymous mode”, which “removes your personal identity from your Flo account, so that no one can identify you”.

A number of other period-tracking companies reacted to the decision.

Astrology-focused period-tracking app Stardust tweeted two days after the Supreme Court’s ruling that “we absolutely want to protect our users from bad actors, hackers, and even our own government encroaching on our private life”.

The company announced that it had implemented an “encrypted wall” to protect user data and was “working on an option allowing users to completely opt out of providing personally identifiable information”.

European-based app Clue, which is subject to stricter privacy laws, said in a statement that “no data point can be traced back to an individual person.”

In response to the question of how companies’ privacy policies could protect consumer data in the face of a warrant, Fowler said, “You can’t hand over what you don’t have.”

“There are limits to the kinds of things law enforcement can do when trying to get information from a business,” Fowler said. “This may indicate how people might want to select rule trackers.”

Lance B. Holton