The concept of period tracking—monitoring body changes to determine where you are in your monthly reproductive cycle—can help people with periods make menstruating more predictable and less of a hassle. If you use a period tracking app, chances are pretty good it knows you better than most people in your life. The rapidly growing femtech industry has fostered the meteoric rise of apps like Flo, Dot, Life, Groove, Clue, and Eve, and fitness tracker companies like Fitbit and Garmin have updated their companion apps to include period tracking. Prior to the growth of apps, people tracked periods on paper calendars and diaries, so the idea isn’t new. What is: how that private health information gets commodified. Having an app that knows you inside and out could come at a cost.
Using an app, by its very nature, can involve divulging information to the company that runs the technology. With period tracking apps, that information can be highly private and very sensitive. The apps vary slightly, but almost always ask users for their birthdate, weight, height, and whether or not they had a period, exercised, dealt with a breakout, were in a good or bad mood, or had sex on each day. This is all potentially of high value to advertisers—and period tracking app companies know this.
What are tracking apps doing with my data?
Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Flo app, along with several other health-related apps, had been sharing user data with Facebook. The data was then matched to actual profiles and used for Facebook’s ad targeting services. Flo’s developers initially claimed they had never sent data to third parties in the first place, then, after the article came out, pledged to stop sharing their data with Facebook.
In terms of sharing information, period apps are hardly different than others. With most apps, it can be difficult to tell what you are consenting to share when you tick an “I Agree” box; countless other apps and sites including Facebook, Ada, and Lexicomp (an illness symptom guide and a medication identification app, respectively), came under fire in recent years for neglecting user privacy. But the intimate data that goes into period tracking apps can have different and potentially more dire consequences if exposed.
“In many cases, even if users are de-identified, it might be possible to figure out who is who,” Bruce Umbaugh, a professor of philosophy at Webster University who teaches courses on technology and privacy, told Reviewed. In other words, just as period app user data can be matched with Facebook profiles, it can also be connected with individual employees—with greater real-world implications—within a company.
Why does it matter if this information gets shared?
Most workplaces would likely say they don’t have malicious intent for gathering intel on their employees’ period and pregnancy data. Ovia claims the information they give companies helps them minimize healthcare costs and provide better benefits for their employees. And, indeed, data such as the average time it takes for employees to get pregnant, the percentage with high-risk pregnancies, how they gave birth, and their timeline for returning to work could inform what benefits may best serve them. Still, it’s extraordinarily private information that employees themselves may not ever have intentionally shared.
In addition, there’s the simple fact that not everyone who gets pregnant stays pregnant. This might be due to miscarriage, which occurs in at least 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies in their first twelve weeks, or termination (188 cases per 1,000 live births in the United States in 2015, according to the CDC). The dissemination of such information, then, can feel particularly troubling for someone who has come to think of their tracking app as a kind of private diary or AI confidante, which is how many period tracking apps present themselves. “Under the guise of giving women greater control over their health and well-being, these apps [may] exploit women by commodifying intimate and personal information about them,” Umbaugh said. “Rather than empowering women, these apps can facilitate manipulating them or discriminating against them.”
How can I keep my personal data private?
An ideal app, Umbaugh says, does not require a user to create an account, allows users to control their privacy settings, and stores its data locally on your phone, rather than in its servers on the cloud. (Clue, Dot, Life, and Groove, for their part, allow individuals to use the app without an official account.)