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Should I Delete My Period Tracking App? Why Reproductive Surveillance Is A Big Concern

Experts sound off on whether your info could be used against you.

With Roe v. Wade on the brink of being overturned, the safety of period tracking apps is under scrut...
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Amid the horrifying leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion proposing that Roe v. Wade be overturned — a reversal that would make it legal for individual states to ban abortion — plenty of questions about safe and confidential abortion access, reproductive rights, and equitable healthcare are popping up.

One such question involves period tracking apps, which are typically billed as an affordable, simple smartphone tool to help you track info about your cycle, including when you ovulate and when you might expect your period, provide reminders about contraception, and more. Bloomberg reports that there are now 100 million users of period tracking apps worldwide since 2014, when Apple HealthKit launchedwithout the ability to track menstruation.

As these apps have grown in popularity, there has been chatter about the inherent privacy and protection (or lack thereof) involved in using them, and whether or not the companies behind the apps are legally allowed to share your personal information and data with third-party sources. And even if it doesn't weird you out that, say, Facebook might have access to your data for marketing purposes, if Roe v. Wade is overturned and you find yourself seeking an illegal abortion, could you be at risk of your own private health information being used against you by law enforcement?

The TL;DR is… kind of, potentially, maybe.

The Inherent Risks of Reproductive Surveillance

Back in 2014, researcher Deborah Lupton laid bare the ethos behind these apps — of which there are now hundreds, if not thousands — telling The Atlantic, "When you look at these types of apps, they're completely about the surveillance of pregnant women," she said, "making them ever more responsible and vigilant about their bodies for the sake of their fetus."

App companies, in turn, not only have access to reproductive health data, but they will generally have no problem sharing it with developers, advertisers, researchers, data brokers, and, yes, law enforcement. Tech outlet Protocol reported that in the case of subpoenas and other requests by law enforcement, companies can push back on providing individual user data, but they comply about 80 percent of the time.

"This kind of information for women is very intimate," Patient Privacy Rights founder Deborah Peel told The Washington Post in 2016. "The implications are really huge: There are absolutely no laws that protect that information from being sold, disclosed, or traded — for any purpose, be it marketing or research."

The Problem with Privacy Laws

What's more, any data voluntarily inputted by a user to these apps isn't necessarily covered by HIPAA, the federal health privacy law that protects your personal health information from being disclosed without your knowledge or consent. According to The Washington Post, even though there are HIPAA-based rules about data security, plenty of health-based apps — including those trusty period-tracking apps — generally aren't required to go through security testing before you download them onto your phone or tablet.

So even if you aren't texting a friend to discuss your abortion plans or snapping selfies from an out-of-state clinic, your location tracking data, search history, and any info you're inputting into these apps could be subject to digital surveillance and possible criminalization. Now that abortion could soon be illegal in roughly half of U.S. states, Protocol reports that tech companies and app developers might soon be helping states investigate and punish people who seek or facilitate abortions. That means if you're subpoenaed, it's possible your menstrual charting data could be turned over to the authorities in an effort to "prove" criminalization of pregnancy or pregnancy loss, whether intended or not.

"It is absolutely something to be concerned about — and something to learn about, hopefully before being in a crisis mode, where learning on the fly might be more difficult," Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, told The Washington Post.

A Judgment Call

At this point, it's too early to tell exactly how restrictive individual states' abortion laws would be should Roe be overturned. Still, given that at least 22 states already have laws that could ban abortion to varying degrees, it's understandable if you are concerned about your privacy and safety going forward. In a worst-case scenario, "even a search for information about a clinic could become illegal under some state laws, or an effort to travel to a clinic with an intent to obtain an abortion," as Alan Butler, the executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Washington Post.

Before you panic, it's worth reading the fine print on any apps you use, especially health- and period-tracking apps. Check the terms of service and privacy policy for the app developer to know how the data can be used or shared. You can also disable location services, search, and chat history. Some social media users, like Gizmodo reporter Shoshana Wodinsky, are providing extensive, detailed information about how to seek an abortion as safely as possible, including bringing a burner phone and keeping your personal devices at home, browsing abortion-related content only on public devices, and, yes, deleting period tracking apps altogether.