Zuckerberg and Co Already Know You Got Your Period - But Why Should We Care?
Digital and bodily autonomy are more related than we think
It’s no secret that the objective of many period-tracking apps goes far beyond that of tracking periods.
After all, monitoring menstrual cycles and other health-related metrics like fitness, nutrition, or sleep has proven to be quite lucrative for developers. Because they can pass on the details collected via their app to third-party companies, like Facebook, Google and Amazon.
And they often do.
So if you’ve ever used one of those apps, chances are Zuckerberg and Co know when you’re on your period. Or when you’re ovulating. Or when you had protected or unprotected sex.
But in light of the reported decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, that practice obviously raises many concerns. And some digital experts and activists are already calling for people to delete these period-tracking apps amid fears that the data they collect — and subsequently share — could be used to target and punish women seeking an abortion.
Could that actually happen?
Are we really facing a future in which law enforcement agencies use the information gathered by apps that help us track our cycles to prosecute abortion-related cases? And if yes, what can women do to protect their privacy?
Many of the period-tracking apps monetise women’s most intimate details
Flo, the most popular period tracker, has at least 43 million users worldwide. And every day, it invites all of them to enter various information about their bodies: the length of their periods, the colour and consistency of vaginal discharge, whether they had unprotected sex or have low libido etc.
That’s a lot of intimate details. Details we might not share even with our closest friends or family.
But Flo has them.
The complaint said that Flo’s data-sharing practices allow third-party companies to use ‘personal health information expansively, including for advertising.’ However, both Flo and the companies that use the data denied doing so. Of course they did.
But Flo isn’t the only offender when it comes to privacy infractions. Other apps have fallen foul of similar data-sharing practices as well.
Another investigation by a US nonprofit organisation examined five popular period tracking apps — BabyCenter, Clue, My Calendar, Ovia and Flo — and found that they all shared user data with third parties for marketing and other purposes. A similar study conducted by a British nonprofit group shared the same results.
And another one found that ten of the most popular period-tracking apps collectively fed personal information to at least 135 companies.
Although most of those apps — including Flo — promise to keep select information collected through its app secret, that promise is misleading. After all, legally speaking, they are mostly free to do what they want with their data.
So how can we really trust them?
In a post-Roe world, it’s not only period-related data we should be worried about
Considering the extensive privacy problems of these period-tracking apps, I’m not surprised that so many people in the States are now worried about what could happen with all their data if abortions become illegal.
It’s also concerning that some of these apps — such as Femm — are owned and funded by various anti-abortion and anti-contraception Catholic Church-associated groups and individuals.
So if abortion — or even birth control — does become criminalised in the US, is it really that unreasonable to believe that law enforcement agencies could potentially use the data gathered through period-tracking apps?
I don’t think so.
In fact, anything from a person’s search history, location, messages and other digital information could be. Especially in places that would reward family, friends, or medical professionals for snitching on abortion seekers and punish those who help them — like it currently works in Texas or Oklahoma.
And although tech companies could choose to push back on the demands from the authorities to reveal their customers’ data, they seem to cough up information required from them the majority of the time. When it comes to Facebook and Google, the amount of data they’ve been handing over worldwide has actually been steadily increasing for years now.
Besides, law enforcement agencies have the forensic tools to view virtually everything a person does on their device — but only once it’s in their possession.
This is precisely what happened to Latice Fisher, a black mother of three, indicted for second-degree murder after an at-home pregnancy loss. Since Fisher had voluntarily surrendered her phone, prosecutors were able to scrape her search history — which included searches for misoprostol — and used it as evidence that she had intentionally ‘killed’ her fetus.
It’s frightening to think that this is currently happening to women in one of most ‘developed’ and richest countries in the world.
Unfortunately, Fisher’s case might not be just an anomaly but a sobering forecast of what’s to come.
It’s time we learn more about digital security
We’ve progressed a great deal over the last century. At least in some aspects. But in some others, clearly not so much.
Because instead of using these cool new technologies and vast amounts of data to do something positive — like improve our collective understanding of female health, which is still primarily overlooked — it looks like we now might be using it against women.
To violate their privacy.
To track them down.
And to prosecute them for making decisions about their own bodies.
All that because some people still see women as walking baby incubators that deserve all the suffering and pain and trauma that comes with it.
Although there’s growing legislative momentum around consumer data protection, it’s rather unlikely that the current regulations will change dramatically anytime soon. There’s also no guarantee that these period-tracking apps will try to minimise the amount of data they collect and hold and won’t misuse it in the future to cause harm or be a tool of surveillance.
Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t.
But if you’re a woman of reproductive age living in a state or country where abortions are illegal — or could very soon be — I’m guessing you don’t want to take any chances.
The good news is that digital security experts and groups, such as Digital Defense Fund, are providing cybersecurity resources and training to people seeking and providing abortions, like this helpful guide. It essentially teaches women how to think and act like spies: concealing their browsing activity with a virtual private network, using an encrypted search engine, turning off location sharing etc.
It also recommends familiarising yourself with the privacy practices of your period-tracking app of choice and, if possible, trying to change the privacy settings to restrict data access.
But if you’re particularly worried about your data, privacy, or the potential risks of using a period-tracker, it might be time to delete your app and rely on pen and paper instead.
While increasing your digital hygiene is generally speaking a good thing, it goes without saying that women shouldn’t have to act like cyberspies just to be able to access essential healthcare.
This is madness.
And to make matters worse, digital tracking of pregnant women and abortion providers doesn’t stop with law enforcement. The pro-forced birthers’ movement has its own forensics operation, too.
They film and harass people who visit or work at abortion clinics. They target ads at women inside of them. And they maintain a database — like AbortionDocs.org — that lists the names, workplaces, and sometimes home addresses of abortion providers.
Women in America, and everywhere else in the world, really deserve better than this. Better than being treated like sacks of meat to be inseminated, used and discarded when they’re no longer ‘useful’ for the greater society.
Yet they still very much are.
And the current abortion debate sadly proves that.