Millions in the United States use period tracking apps like Flo, Clue and Apple Health to keep track of ovulation cycles and plan for – or avoid – pregnancies.
However, after after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade, a landmark decision that used to protect abortion rights in the country, many are considering going back to using paper calendars to track their periods.
The concern is that sensitive data will be leaked to local governments, law enforcement, and individuals with malicious intentions who could use it to track down women who choose to have abortions.
This worry isn't unfounded, according to experts.
Period Trackers Have Sold Data Before
Period tracking apps have been known to sell sensitive data to companies. Flo, for example, reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after it was accused of sharing sensitive user data with third parties including Facebook and Google.
After the Supreme Court's decision however, things have become even more serious. Restrictions on abortions are expected to be imposed in about half of the states in the country.
In states where laws criminalise abortion, such data can be used against those who undergo the procedure and those who help them by law enforcement and even motivated individuals.
Texas, for example, has now banned most abortions once cardiac activity in the embryo can be detected and it offers $10,000 to those who successfully sue people linked to abortions that occur after this point, incentivising vigilantism.
Governments themselves have kept an eye on abortion data before. In a 2019 hearing, according to The Kansas City Star, Missouri’s state health department admitted that it kept a spreadsheet of Planned Parenthood abortion patients.
Now, governments may try to force companies to hand over pregnancy-related data to law enforcement.
Not Just Period Tracking Apps
It's not just period tracking apps. Data relevant to abortions could be obtained through any company which gathers user information, including companies like Google, Facebook parent Meta Platforms and Amazon.
Trade representatives told Reuters they fear police will obtain warrants for customers' search history, geolocation and other information indicating plans to terminate a pregnancy.
"It is very likely that there’s going to be requests made to those tech companies for information related to search histories, to websites visited," said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation.
Data brokers may become the worst offenders.
Online data broker SafeGraph, for instance, was found to be selling location data about people who visited abortion clinics, according to a Vice report.
“This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions – how you dox clinics providing this service,” cybersecurity researcher Zach Edwards told the publication.
The data did not provide information about individuals but research shows that it isn't very difficult to study mobility data and identify people.
"It’s all but certain that police and prosecutors will tap into the full fearsome force of the local surveillance state to find such evidence," wrote Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) in his piece for Fast Company.
The Law Falls Short, Apps Focus on Anonymity
The US has the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a law that protects health and medical information from being leaked.
While some period-tracking apps do claim to be HIPAA compliant, they aren't actually bound by this law, which only limits what hospitals, health care centres and insurance companies can disclose to third parties.
Developers are now working on ways to anonymize user data, The Wall Street Journal reported, so that if they are compelled to share data they won't be able to give specifics.
Natural Cycles, the first birth-control app cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, is working to build a “completely anonymous experience for users,” Raoul Scherwitzl, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO, told the publication.
Flo has also announced “Anonymous Mode” which will allow users to remove their personal information from the account.
"If I lived in a state where abortion was actively being criminalised, I would not use a period tracker, that's for sure," Andrea Ford, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, told NPR.
While the safety of tracker apps will depend on the state, experts recommend scrutinising the terms and conditions of each app and favour those that store data locally.
(With inputs from NPR, The Kansas City Star, and The Washington Post)