How Period-Tracker Apps Treat Your Data, and What That Means if Roe v. Wade Is Overturned

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.

Prosecutors have also obtained other types of digital information, including text messages and search histories, as evidence for abortion-related cases…(More)”.

Many researchers say they’ll share data — but don’t

Article by Clare Watson: “Most biomedical and health researchers who declare their willingness to share the data behind journal articles do not respond to access requests or hand over the data when asked, a study reports1.

Livia Puljak, who studies evidence-based medicine at the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb, and her colleagues analysed 3,556 biomedical and health science articles published in a month by 282 BMC journals. (BMC is part of Springer Nature, the publisher of Nature; Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher.)

The team identified 381 articles with links to data stored in online repositories and another 1,792 papers for which the authors indicated in statements that their data sets would be available on reasonable request. The remaining studies stated that their data were in the published manuscript and its supplements, or generated no data, so sharing did not apply.

But of the 1,792 manuscripts for which the authors stated they were willing to share their data, more than 90% of corresponding authors either declined or did not respond to requests for raw data (see ‘Data-sharing behaviour’). Only 14%, or 254, of the contacted authors responded to e-mail requests for data, and a mere 6.7%, or 120 authors, actually handed over the data in a usable format. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology on 29 May.

DATA-SHARING BEHAVIOUR. Graphic showing percentage of authors that were willing to share data.
Source: Livia Puljak et al

Puljak was “flabbergasted” that so few researchers actually shared their data. “There is a gap between what people say and what people do,” she says. “Only when we ask for the data can we see their attitude towards data sharing.”

“It’s quite dismaying that [researchers] are not coming forward with the data,” says Rebecca Li, who is executive director of non-profit global data-sharing platform Vivli and is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts…(More)”.

China’s Expanding Surveillance State

Article by  Isabelle Qian, Muyi Xiao, Paul Mozur and Alexander Cardia in the New York Times: “China’s ambition to collect a staggering amount of personal data from everyday citizens is more expansive than previously known, a Times investigation has found. Phone-tracking devices are now everywhere. The police are creating some of the largest DNA databases in the world. And the authorities are building upon facial recognition technology to collect voice prints from the general public.

The Times’s Visual Investigations team and reporters in Asia spent over a year analyzing more than a hundred thousand government bidding documents. They call for companies to bid on the contracts to provide surveillance technology, and include product requirements and budget size, and sometimes describe at length the strategic thinking behind the purchases. Chinese laws stipulate that agencies must keep records of bids and make them public, but in reality the documents are scattered across hard-to-search web pages that are often taken down quickly without notice. ChinaFile, a digital magazine published by the Asia Society, collected the bids and shared them exclusively with The Times.

This unprecedented access allowed The Times to study China’s surveillance capabilities. The Chinese government’s goal is clear: designing a system to maximize what the state can find out about a person’s identity, activities and social connections, which could ultimately help the government maintain its authoritarian rule.

Here are the investigation’s major revelations.

Analysts estimate that more than half of the world’s nearly one billion surveillance cameras are in China, but it had been difficult to gauge how they were being used, what they captured and how much data they generated. The Times analysis found that the police strategically chose locations to maximize the amount of data their facial recognition cameras could collect…

The Chinese authorities are realistic about their technological limitations. According to one bidding document, the Ministry of Public Security, China’s top police agency, believed the country’s video surveillance systems still lacked analytical capabilities. One of the biggest problems they identified was that the data had not been centralized….(More)”.

Meet the fact-checkers decoding Sri Lanka’s meltdown

Article by Nilesh Christopher: “On the evening of May 3, the atmosphere at Galle Face Green, an esplanade along the coastline of Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, was carnivalesque. Parents strolled on sidewalks with toddlers hoisted on their shoulders. Teenagers wearing bandanas played the flute and blew plastic horns. People climbed atop makeshift podiums to address the crowds, greeted by scattered applause. 

The crowd of a few hundred was part of a series of protests that had been underway since mid-March, demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For months, the country has been trapped in a brutal economic crisis: Sri Lanka is currently unable to pay for imports of essentials, such as food, medicines, and fuel. Populist tax cuts, an abrupt ban on fertilizer imports, decimated crop yields, and the collapse of tourism during the pandemic all helped to push the country into the worst economic crisis it has faced since gaining independence in 1948.

The island nation owes nearly $7 billion this year and has next to no foreign reserves left. “We don’t have any gas. We don’t have fuel and some food items. We lose power for three to four hours daily now,” Nalin Chamara, 42, a hotelier protesting with his family and children, told Rest of World. Meanwhile, the presidential family at one point controlled around 70% of the nation’s budget and ran it as a family business, spending billions of dollars of borrowed money on vanity projects, such as an extravagant airport and cricket stadium that now sit almost entirely unused.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne walked among the Galle Face Green crowds, surveying the scene. He pointed out where demonstrators had jury-rigged their own electricity supply by welding solar panels atop an open truck and connecting them to a battery. The power generated was being used to charge over two dozen smartphones inside a big blue tent, which also contained a library housing 15,000 books. “This is what Sri Lankans will do if you let them build stuff. Fucking build infrastructure from scratch,” Wijeratne said. The protest featured a giant middle finger monument made of plastic bottles, directed at the Rajapaksas. “Our real educational export should be B.Sc. in protest,” Wijeratne said.

Wijeratne, 29 years old, is best known as the author of Numbercaste, a science fiction novel about a near-future world where people’s importance in society is decided based on the all-powerful Number, a credit score determined by their social circle and social network data. But he is also the chief executive of Watchdog, a research collective based in Colombo that uses fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT) methods to investigate Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis. As part of its work, he and his 12-member team of coders, journalists, economists, and students track, time stamp, geolocate, and document videos of protests shared online.

Watchdog’s protest tracker has emerged as the most comprehensive online archive of the historic events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Its data set, which comprises 597 different protests and 49 conflicts, has been used by global news organizations to demonstrate the extent of public pushback.

“[Our] core mission is simple,” Wijeratne told Rest of World. “We want to help people understand the infrastructure they use. The concrete, the laws, the policies, and the social contracts that they live under. We want to help people understand the causality of how they came to be and how they operate.”…(More)”.

Satellites zoom in on cities’ hottest neighborhoods to help combat the urban heat island effect

Article by Daniel P. Johnson: “Spend time in a city in summer and you can feel the urban heat rising from the pavement and radiating from buildings. Cities are generally hotter than surrounding rural areas, but even within cities, some residential neighborhoods get dangerously warmer than others just a few miles away.

Within these “micro-urban heat islands,” communities can experience heat wave conditions well before officials declare a heat emergency.

I use Earth-observing satellites and population data to map these hot spots, often on projects with NASA. Satellites like the Landsat program have become crucial for pinpointing urban risks so cities can prepare for and respond to extreme heat, a top weather-related killer.

Among the many things we’ve been able to track with increasingly detailed satellite data is that the hottest neighborhoods are typically low-income and often have predominantly Black or Hispanic residents….

With rising global temperatures increasing the likelihood of dangerous heat waves, cities need to know which neighborhoods are at high risk. Excessive heat can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death with prolonged exposure, and the most at-risk residents often lack financial resources to adapt.

Map of Chicago showing how heat deaths clustered in the urban core during the 1995 heat wave.
The July 1995 Chicago heat wave was blamed for over 739 deaths in a five-day period. Most victims were poor and elderly people who lacked air conditioning or feared opening windows because of crime. This figure shows the location of heat-related deaths clustered in areas of higher surface urban heat intensity.

Satellite instruments can identify communities vulnerable to extreme heat because they can measure and map the surface urban heat island in high detail.

For example, industrial and commercial zones are frequently among the hottest areas in cities. They typically have fewer trees to cool the air and more pavement and buildings to retain and radiate heat…(More)”

Sweeping Legislation Aims to Ban the Sale of Location Data

Article by Joseph Cox and Liz Landers: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a group of other Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill that would essentially outlaw the sale of location data harvested from smartphones. The bill also presents a range of other powers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and individual victims to push back against the multibillion-dollar location data industry.

The move comes after Motherboard reported multiple instances in which companies were selling location data of people who visited abortion clinics, and sometimes making subsets of that data freely available. Such data has taken on a new significance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s looming vote on whether to overturn the protections offered by Roe v. Wade. The bill also follows a wave of reporting from Motherboard and others on various abuses and data sales in the location data industry writ large.

“Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere by selling their most private information,” Warren told Motherboard in a statement. “With this extremist Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential health care, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to protect consumers’ sensitive data. The Health and Location Data Protection Act will ban brokers from selling Americans’ location and health data, rein in giant data brokers, and set some long overdue rules of the road for this $200 billion industry.”…(More)”.

Roadside safety messages increase crashes by distracting drivers

Article by Jonathan Hall and Joshua Madsen: “Behavioural interventions involve gently suggesting that people reconsider or change specific undesirable behaviours. They are a low-cost, easy-to-implement and increasingly common tool used by policymakers to encourage socially desirable behaviours.

Examples of behavioural interventions include telling people how their electricity usage compares to their neighbours or sending text messages reminding people to pay fines.

Many of these interventions are expressly designed to “seize people’s attention” at a time when they can take the desired action. Unfortunately, seizing people’s attention can crowd out other, more important considerations, and cause even a simple intervention to backfire with costly individual and social consequences.

One such behavioural intervention struck us as odd: Several U.S. states display year-to-date fatality statistics (number of deaths) on roadside dynamic message signs (DMSs). The hope is that these sobering messages will reduce traffic crashesa leading cause of death of five- to 29-year-olds worldwide. Perhaps because of its low cost and ease of implementation, at least 28 U.S. states have displayed fatality statistics at least once since 2012. We estimate that approximately 90 million drivers have been exposed to such messages.

a road sign saying 1669 DEATHS THIS YEAR ON TEXAS ROADS
A roadside dynamic messaging sign in Texas, displaying the death toll from road crashes. (Jonathan Hall), Author provided

Startling results

As academic researchers with backgrounds in information disclosure and transportation policy, we teamed up to investigate and quantify the effects of these messages. What we found startled us.

Contrary to policymakers’ expectations (and ours), we found that displaying fatality messages increases the number of crashes…(More)”.

Reimagining the Request for Proposal

Article by Devon Davey, Heather Hiscox & Nicole Markwick : “In recent years, the social sector and the communities it serves have called for deep structural change to address our most serious social injustices. Yet one of the basic tools we use to fund change, the request for proposal (RFP), has remained largely unchanged. We believe that RFPs must become part of the larger call for systemic reform….

At first glance, the RFP process may seem neutral or fair. Yet RFPs are often designed by individuals in high-level positions without meaningful input from community members and frontline staff—those who are most familiar with social injustices and who often hold the least institutional power. What’s more, those who both issue and respond to RFPs often rely on their social capital to find and collaborate on RFP opportunities. Since social networks are highly homogeneous, RFP participation is limited to the professionals who have social connections to the issuer, resulting in a more limited pool of applicants.

This selection process is further compounded by the human propensity to hire people who look the same and who reflect similar ways of thinking. Social sector decision makers and power holders tend to be—among other identities—white. This lack of diversity, furthered by historical oppression, has ensured that white privilege and ways of working have come to dominate within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. This concentration of power and lack of diverse perspectives and experiences shaping RFPs results in projects failing to respond to the needs of communities and, in many cases, projects that directly perpetuate racism, colonialism, misogyny, ableism, sexism, and other forms of systemic and individual oppression.

The rigid structure of RFPs plays an important role in many of the negative outcomes of projects. Effective social change work is emergent, is iterative, and centers trust by nature. By contrast, RFPs frequently apply inflexible work scopes, limited timelines and budgets, and unproven solutions that are developed within the blinders of institutional power. Too often, funders force programs into implementation because they want to see results according to a specified plan. This rigidity can produce initiatives that are ineffective and removed from community needs. As consultant Joyce Lee-Ibarra says, “[RFPs] feel fundamentally transactional, when the work I want to do is relational.”…(More)”.

Six Prescriptions for Applied Behavioral Science as It Comes of Age

Article by Dilip Soman and Nina Mažar: “…But it has now been over 14 years since the publication of Nudge and more than 10 years since the first behavioral unit in government started functioning. While we have made a lot of progress as a field, we believe that the applied science is at a critical juncture. Our efforts at this stage will determine whether the field matures in a systematic and stable manner, or grows wildly and erratically. Unless we take stock of the science, the practice, and the mechanisms that we can put into place to align the two, we will run the danger of the promise of behavioral science being an illusion for many—not because the science itself was faulty, but because we did not successfully develop a science for using the science.  

We offer six prescriptions for how the field of applied behavioral science can better align itself so that it grows in a systematic and not in a wild manner. 

1. Offer a balanced and nuanced view of the promise of behavioral science 

We believe that it is incumbent on leaders in both the academic and applied space to offer a balanced view of the promise of behavioral science. While we understand that the nature of the book publication process or of public lectures tends to skew on additives to highlight success, we also believe that it is perhaps more of a contribution for the field to highlight limitations and nuances. Rather than narratives along the lines of “A causes B,” it would be helpful for our leaders to highlight narratives such as “A causes B in some conditions and C in others.” Dissemination of this new narrative could take the form of traditional knowledge mobilization tools, such as books, popular press articles, interviews, podcasts, and essays. Our recent coedited book, Behavioral Science in the Wildis one attempt at this.

2.Publish null and nonsurprising results 

Academic incentives usually create a body of work that (a) is replete with positive results, (b) overrepresents surprising results, (c) is not usually replicated, and (d) is focused on theory and phenomena and not on practical problems. As has been discussed elsewhere, this occurs because of the academic incentive structure, which favors surprising and positive results. We call on our field to change this culture by creating platforms that allow and encourage authors to publish null results, as well as unsurprising results…(More)”.

Omnivorous Analysis

Essay by Anne Lee Steele: “Satellite imagery has woven itself into the fabric of the internet. We recognize these crisp, high-definition, bird’s-eye-view images most commonly from Google Earth—but we employ them in much more besides: from reporting on stuck shipping containers to getting directions to a friend’s house, to tracking forest fires in real time and scrolling through real estate listings. Given their ever-widening range of commercial, consumer, and civic uses, it won’t surprise most people to hear that the industry that produces them (also known as Earth Observation, or EO) is growing at an exponential rate, and is only expected to expand further in the coming years.

Yet despite the prominence of satellite imagery in the geographical imagination of the internet, the imperatives of the industry are much less clear. The corporations that produce them are much less well known, and the military interests that back them remain as murky as ever. The highly visible commercial side of the industry is still deeply intertwined with its classified counterpart, and two companies, Maxar and Planet, have emerged to dominate the industry—supporting civilian functions with one hand, while supplying US defense needs with the other. 

Indeed, the ubiquity of commercial satellite imagery gives nearly anyone godlike powers of reconnaissance and surveillance not that far removed from those enjoyed by militaries and intelligence agencies—a fact that causes no small amount of anxiety within the Pentagon. The pervasiveness and power of their imagery compels us to ask: Where do they come from? And how are they being put to use?…(More)”.