Following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe Vs Wade, fresh fear has been fueled about the privacy of period tracking apps. The ruling, announced Friday, June 24, will end the federal right to abortion for millions of Americans, with 26 states “certain or likely” to introduce bans.
Such bans will make it illegal for people to seek an abortion, leaving many afraid that their private health data, such as that stored on period tracking apps, could be used against them.
With Roe overturned, concerns are rife that companies behind period tracking apps could be forced to hand user data over to the authorities, potentially indicating whether a user had or was considering an abortion. In light of this, scores of people on the internet are advising against period tracking apps, recommending that users delete both the apps and their data.
What data could be shared?
Period tracking apps are used by tens of millions worldwide to record menstrual cycles. They store personal health data, which can be used to reveal when a period started and stopped, predict future periods, and indicate a potential pregnancy. This data could then be sold to a third party, or be subpoenaed, and used as evidence that a user had or considered an abortion, hence the calls to delete.
Some apps may also collect location data, which could be used as an identifier.
“When that little blue dot goes from that house to that office, you have a pretty good idea of who that is,” India McKinney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told New Scientist.
Will period tracking apps share data?
This depends on the individual app's terms and conditions. Some claim to strip data of identifying details – such as name or address – before selling or sharing, but this doesn't necessarily extend to IP addresses, which can indicate the specific device used.
When it comes to sharing data with law enforcement, there isn’t currently a precedent for how data from period tracking apps could be used in a criminal case. However, it’s not unusual for apps to cooperate with investigations, particularly in cases against child exploitation.
“It’s unlikely that [period tracking] data will be shared,” Eva Blum-Dumontet, a tech policy researcher, told Business Insider.
“But not impossible,” she added, not wanting to give users a “false sense of security”.
Should you delete your period tracking app?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to that question – it will depend on what state you’re in and what their laws are. And ultimately, whether the risk of logging your periods in an app is worth the convenience.
For McKinney, it is. She recommends choosing apps carefully and not allowing them to use your location data, according to New Scientist.
But some experts are more cautious.
"If I lived in a state where abortion was actively being criminalized, I would not use a period tracker — that's for sure," Andrea Ford, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, told NPR.
"If you want to be safe, use a paper calendar."
These sentiments were echoed by Jackie Singh, former senior cybersecurity staffer on the Biden presidential campaign, who told Mashable: “I would caution people who menstruate to stop using any type of app to track their menstrual health if they have any expectation of having a presence in states which are expected to ban abortion.
However, we obviously cannot anticipate how future legislation will impact us, so the safest thing is to stop digital tracking."
What to look out for on your period tracking app
You should look for apps that store data locally, Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told NPR. Data stored in the cloud is owned by the company, so is much more easily accessed by police than locally-stored data, which is owned by the user.
According to NPR, non-profit models may offer better security, as may paid apps, which don’t need to collect advertising data and so may be less likely to track users.
As for which apps are best, several have made announcements in the wake of the overturning of Roe.
Clue, a Berlin-based company, has vowed to protect the personal data of American users.
“We understand that many of our American users are worried that their tracked data could be used against them by US prosecutors. It is important to understand that European law protects our community’s sensitive health data,” it said in a statement.
“Clue is obligated under the world’s strictest data privacy law, the European GDPR, to apply special protections to such health data.”
Two other apps, Flo and Natural Cycles, have promised an “anonymous mode”, to protect users' personal data.