Article by Nicole Nguyen and Cordilia James: “You might not talk to your friends about your monthly cycle, but there’s a good chance you talk to an app about it. And why not? Period-tracking apps are more convenient than using a diary, and the insights are more interesting, too.
But how much do you know about the ways apps and trackers collect, store—and sometimes share—your fertility and menstrual-cycle data?
The question has taken on new importance following the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Roe established a constitutional right to abortion, and should the court reverse its 1973 decision, about half the states in the U.S. are likely to restrict or outright ban the procedure.
Phone and app data have long been shared and sold without prominent disclosure, often for advertising purposes. HIPAA, aka the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, might protect information shared between you and your healthcare provider, but it doesn’t typically apply to data you put into an app, even a health-related one. Flo Health Inc., maker of a popular period and ovulation tracker, settled with the Federal Trade Commission in 2021 for sharing sensitive health data with Facebook without making the practice clear to users.
The company completed an independent privacy audit earlier this year. “We remain committed to ensuring the utmost privacy for our users and want to make it clear that Flo does not share health data with any company,” a spokeswoman said.
In a scenario where Roe is overturned, your digital breadcrumbs—including the kind that come from period trackers—could be used against you in states where laws criminalize aiding in or undergoing abortion, say legal experts.
“The importance of menstrual data is not merely speculative. It has been relevant to the government before, in investigations and restrictions,” said Leah Fowler, research director at University of Houston’s Health Law and Policy Institute. She cited a 2019 hearing where Missouri’s state health department admitted to keeping a spreadsheet of Planned Parenthood abortion patients, which included the dates of their last menstrual period.