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2 Jan

Methods to stop period trackers from using your data

With the US set to overturn Roe v Wade, many fear that data from period tracking apps like Flo could possibly be used to prosecute those in search of abortions

The news that the landmark ruling Roe v Wade could be overturned sent a wave of anger across the US last month, with hundreds of thousands of ladies forced to face the likelihood that their access to legal abortion can be stripped away. Should this occur, the implications of getting an abortion could be severe. In Texas, for instance, anyone who performs, induces or attempts an abortion could be guilty of a first-degree felony – the identical category as murder, rape, kidnapping and arson. It will be punishable by as much as life in prison and a wonderful of as much as $10k. 

Alongside discussions around women’s bodily autonomy and health, the revelation re-sparked a conversation that privacy experts have been having for years: should we be nervous about what period tracking apps are doing with our menstruation data?

“In the event you are using a web based period tracker or tracking your cycles through your phone, get off it and delete your data. Now,” wrote Elizabeth C. McLaughlin, creator, attorney and activist, in a tweet that has since gone viral. “In the event you think that your data showing whenever you last menstruated isn’t of interest to those that are about to outlaw abortion, whew do I even have a wakeup call for YOU.” 

The priority is that when abortion is criminalised, data from period tracking apps could possibly be used to penalise anyone in search of an abortion. Unlike medical records, information collected by apps isn’t protected by HIPAA, the act which limits how much of a patients’ health information could be shared. Plus, the precedent for menstrual data tracking is already there – in 2019 it was revealed that a Missouri health director tracked the menstrual cycles of Planned Parenthood patients in a spreadsheet and used it to discover those that had had “failed medical abortions”.

Location data firm SafeGraph sold information related to visits to abortion clinics for just $160 until very recently, and a recent Mother Jones article detailed how our mobile phones could be weaponised against us by law enforcement relating to prosecuting abortions. Meanwhile period tracking app Flo got here under fire from The Federal Trade Commission in January 2021. Despite promising to maintain users’ health data private, they were found to have shared the info of hundreds of thousands with marketing and analytics firms, including the likes of Facebook and Google. The corporate has since come to a settlement which means it legally must get consent to share user’s data before doing so. 

Tens of millions of individuals around the globe use apps to trace their reproductive cycles. Flo claims that each tenth woman on the earth between the ages 15 to 49 manages their cycle using the app – over 100 million people – while Clue claims 12 million monthly lively users. So there’s plenty of knowledge available to reap – but could information from period tracker apps actually be utilized in court?  

Jamie Todd-Gher, a human rights lawyer specialising in reproductive and sexual health, believes that no, it couldn’t be viably used. “What qualifies as admissible evidence is different in every case. If one of these data was admitted into court I might think it could be weak, and an individual couldn’t be prosecuted on that evidence alone,” she says. Kat Green, managing director of Abortion Access Front agrees that it’s unlikely that one of these data can be utilized in court, but says it’s a possible. 

“Because the info is on the market, anybody can get access to it, including organisations who’ve an interest in prosecuting people in search of abortions. So in states like Texas or Oklahoma, where there’s a bounty placed on reporting abortions, people could buy that information and comb it for potential cases to attempt to get that reward,” she says. Realistically, Green believes most anti-abortion organisations aren’t actually that tech-savvy, “however it’s not nearly anyone ideologically aligned with them, it’s now also individuals who need to harvest that financial potential,” she explains.

“This needs to be a get up call for people to be more cautious about how they use their phones and web browsers to go looking for information” – Kat Green

An even bigger worry, Green says, is the language persons are using on social media and search engines like google and yahoo and he or she advises people to be intentional about what they type. “The info collection could definitely be used to prosecute people, but far more immediate dangers are in people using language in texts and on social media to incriminate themselves, like ‘where can I get abortion pills?’” she warns. 

“This needs to be a wake-up call for people to be more cautious about how they use their phones, web browsers, and social media to go looking for information,” she continues, advising people to delete search histories and learn learn how to use encrypted text messaging like Signal. Digital Defense Fund’s abortion privacy guide, outlining the essential risks can even help. “Your phone is a source of data that could possibly be used to criminalise any activity, so the very first thing everybody needs to be desirous about is adding a pin code to their phone, don’t use biometric locks and don’t unlock your phone for law enforcement voluntarily,” she adds.

Lydia X. Z. Brown, a policy counsel working with the Privacy and Data Project on the Center for Democracy and Technology echoes this: “There are only a few protections for health-related data collected by private apps,” they are saying, adding that individuals who can turn into pregnant can be at a serious risk of increased surveillance and prosecution using data like geolocation tracking and search history in addition to health data. Like Green, they advise, “people concerned about this could use encrypted messaging services and virtual private networks for web browsing.”

Serenity, 20, from Texas still finds the news very scary, nevertheless. “I used the Flo app after I was younger but stopped once I started my contraception,” she says. “It was advertised as a discreet technique to track your period, and I might report all the pieces. I’m indignant that this could possibly be used against women who’re unaware. Who’s to say the programming won’t be altered in the longer term to report a period picking back up after just a few months?” She adds that she has encouraged all of her friends to delete the app. 

So what’s the answer? Former Google worker, 28-year-old Charvi is California based and has been working within the privacy space for over a yr. Charvi began suspecting her data was being tracked when she was shown targeted ads regarding her health history. “Targeting and data collection is wonderful after I opt into it. But sharing it externally without my knowledge is an enormous privacy violation,” she says. “For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing all my health searches in Incognito just to stop something like this from happening. I think a stronger technological measure needs to be taken in order that firms are prevented from accessing private information.”

It was these privacy violations that led Charvi and her husband to construct startup SlikSafe, an end-to-end encrypted system that stores your data on a decentralised network. “With this news about Flo, I feel much more compelled to increase this technology to construct an end-to-end encrypted period tracker app,” she says. 

Charvi hopes that SlikSafe can be the secure space in app form that ladies need and deserve. And for girls still nervous, Susan Yanow from SASS, the US project of Women Help Women, suggests using apps like Euki as an alternative, which is the “first app of its kind” to supply the tools needed to administer sexual and reproductive health (SRH) securely. Your data will stay on your phone, and in contrast to other apps, it doesn’t store data or transmit it to anyone else. And remember to have a look at the privacy policy of each app you download as a general rule.

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