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

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

By Hannah Norman, Kaiser Health News and Victoria Knight

It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of individuals within the U.S. use period-tracking apps to plan forward, monitor when they’re ovulating, and monitor different health results. The apps will 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, individuals turned to social media. They have been expressing considerations concerning the privateness of this info — particularly for individuals who dwell in states with strict limits on abortion — and the way it is likely to be used in opposition to them.

Many customers really useful immediately deleting all private knowledge 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 professional, said the data might “be used to prosecute you if you ever choose to have an abortion.”

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

Is Your Period-Tracking App Data Shared?

Privacy insurance policies — particularly, whether or not the apps promote info to knowledge brokers, use the info for promoting, share it for analysis, or maintain it solely throughout the app — differ considerably amongst corporations.

“Does it encrypt? What’s its business model?” mentioned 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 lined beneath the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, although if the corporate is billing for health care providers, it may be. Still, HIPAA doesn’t forestall the corporate from sharing de-identified knowledge. If the app is free — and the corporate is monetizing the info — then “you are the product” and HIPAA doesn’t apply, Savage mentioned.

A 2019 examine published in the BMJ discovered that 79% of health apps out there by the Google Play retailer usually shared person knowledge and have been “far from transparent.”

When it involves advertising and marketing, a pregnant particular person’s knowledge is especially of excessive worth and might be exhausting to cover from the barrage of cookies and bots. Some period-tracking apps, which frequently ask for health info apart from menstrual cycle particulars, participate within the broader web knowledge 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,” mentioned Giulia De Togni, a health and synthetic intelligence researcher on the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Flo Health, headquartered in London, settled with the Federal Trade Commission last year over allegations that the corporate, after guarantees of privateness, shared health knowledge of customers utilizing its fertility-tracking app with outdoors knowledge analytics corporations, together with Facebook and Google.

In 2019, Ovia Health drew criticism for sharing knowledge — although de-identified and aggregated — with employers, who might buy the period- and pregnancy-tracking app as a health profit for his or her employees. People utilizing the employer-sponsored model should presently choose in for this type of data-sharing.

Ovia’s roughly 10,000-word privacy policy particulars how the corporate could share or promote de-identified health knowledge and makes use of monitoring applied sciences for commercials and analytics on its free, direct-to-consumer model.

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

Companies have the choice of extending these rights to individuals residing within the U.S. by way of their privateness insurance policies and phrases of providers. If they accomplish that, the FTC can then maintain the businesses accountable for these commitments, mentioned Deven McGraw, Invitae’s head of information stewardship and the previous deputy director for health 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 information to 3rd events. Instead, it makes cash solely by subscriptions, spokesperson Raneal Engineer mentioned.

Concerned prospects have been reaching out to a different health app, Clue, developed by an organization primarily based 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 mentioned in an emailed assertion.

Some states, resembling California and Virginia, have state-level legal guidelines that give customers possession over their info and whether or not it’s offered to 3rd events.

Data brokers commerce in different forms of info, resembling location-tracking knowledge for individuals who visited Planned Parenthood, which probably might be bought by regulation enforcement or authorities officers. Earlier this month, SafeGraph halted promoting cellphone-tracking knowledge mapping the actions of individuals visiting Planned Parenthood, how lengthy they stayed, and the place they went afterward, after Vice reported buying a week’s worth of data for $160.

Also of concern is an organization’s degree of information safety, and the way vulnerable it’s to a breach. “Hacking is criminal, there’s no question about it,” Savage mentioned. “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,” mentioned McGraw. “But if an abortion is a crime, it could be accessed in building a case against you.”

This relies on the place you reside, however there are not any federal protections in opposition to that occuring 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 knowledge brokers from promoting private info to regulation 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” frightened concerning the likelihood that individuals who search an abortion might be incriminated by their cellphone knowledge.

“It is really an ominous prospect of women having their personal data weaponized against them,” mentioned Wyden. “These big data outfits,” he mentioned, “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 regulation, if regulation enforcement does get a court-ordered subpoena, it may be troublesome for an organization to withstand handing over knowledge 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,” mentioned 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 relies on how these legal guidelines are structured. Last month, as an 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 regulation, 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 mechanically go into impact and ban abortion outright or after set home windows of time — as an example, six weeks or 15 weeks, according to a KFF analysis.

“It’s really complicated under the hood, but I don’t think people should blindly assume their data is safe from legal process,” Savage mentioned. It can rely on the corporate’s method to subpoenas, she added. Some will struggle them whereas others won’t.

Take Apple, for instance, which repeatedly resisted unlocking iPhones for regulation enforcement in high-profile circumstances just like the 2015 San Bernardino taking pictures. Data in Apple’s health app, which incorporates its interval tracker, is “encrypted and inaccessible by default,” based on the company’s privacy policy. All the health knowledge within the app is saved on an individual’s cellphone, not saved on servers. But on the similar time, Savage mentioned, 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 kit.

Ovia’s privateness coverage says the corporate could give knowledge to regulation enforcement if required by regulation or subpoena. The firm, nonetheless, mentioned 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 knowledge “entirely and permanently.”

Despite safeguards in place beneath the GDRP, interval trackers primarily based in Europe can nonetheless be subpoenaed as properly, mentioned 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,” mentioned 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 health director Dr. Randall Williams obtained a spreadsheet monitoring the menstrual intervals of women 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 keeping track of the menstrual cycles of teen 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 mentioned.

Should You Delete Your Period-Tracking App?

Experts mentioned it’s unlikely {that a} period-tracking app could be the only real 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,” mentioned 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 sort of app on it there’s a threat that knowledge might be obtained and used as a part of a legal or civil prosecution. Bottom line: The solely solution 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 danger of utilizing the know-how whereas contemplating the profit it brings to their life.

“You have to think about what you need in terms of period tracking,” mentioned 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 health points. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is among the three main working applications at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on health points to the nation.

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