Millions of women all over the U.S. use period tracking apps like Flo to monitor their menstrual cycles. The app tracks when the user’s period starts and ends and when a pregnancy starts and ends, and digital privacy experts are worried states that have outlawed abortion could use this data to prosecute women that obtain the procedure illegally.
Flo bills itself as the most popular period tracking app in the industry with around 43 million active users, while its leading competitor Clue claims 12 million monthly active users. Most of us are used to sharing our personal data with apps and smartphones, but now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, women may want to think twice before sharing their personal health information with a third party, especially if they live or are visiting a state where abortion has been banned.
Experts say this data could be used to see when or if a woman is considering having an abortion.
“We’re very concerned in a lot of advocacy spaces about what happens when private corporations or the government can gain access to deeply sensitive data about people’s lives and activities,” said Lydia X. Z. Brown, a policy counsel with the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Especially when that data could put people in vulnerable and marginalized communities at risk for actual harm.”
Around 26 states are expected to ban abortion or drastically limit access to the procedure, which means millions of women could now be at risk. Many opponents to abortion say they aren’t interested in prosecuting mothers for having an abortion, but we are living in a new reality and legal analysts say it is certainly on the table. For example, lawmakers in Louisiana recently advanced a bill that would make having an abortion a homicide.
Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, says prosecutors could use other kinds of digital tracking apps to see who is having an abortion, such as Google location services. Google and other location-based apps update your location in the cloud every two minutes. A woman can easily share her location with a third party by opening an app or playing a game while sitting in the waiting room of a clinic that provides abortion services.
“Any app that is collecting sensitive information about your health or your body should be given an additional level of scrutiny,” Greer says.
Google searches and other search engine data may also come into play. Women often use these apps and websites to find information about abortion services. Experts say just about anyone could get their hands on this information and use it to target women seeking reproductive care.
This could be particularly dangerous in a state like Texas where private citizens can sue someone for having an abortion.
“Anybody could get their hands on this data by simply purchasing it from a company that is already collecting it,” Brown says.
Companies are legally obliged to cooperate with the police during an investigation. Prosecutors in a state where abortion is illegal will likely subpoena period tracking apps for user information.
“It becomes really muddy when you get into abortion,” said Andrea Ford, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. “If that [were to become] illegal in certain places, does that transcend the right to privacy that is written into the contracts in the way that child trafficking would?”
Flo has come under fire for sharing user information before. The app settled with the Federal Trade Commission amid allegations that it misled users about the disclosure of their personal health data. According to a 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation, Flo informed Facebook when a user was having their period or if they informed the app that they intended to get pregnant.
After the terms were disclosed, the company said it “firmly believes women’s health data should be held with the utmost privacy and care at all times, which is why we do not share health data with any third party.”
The period tracking app Clue released a statement just before Roe v. Wade was overturned that said it is committed to protecting the personal health information of its users.
Prior to the ruling, Clue had said “any data you track in Clue about pregnancies, pregnancy loss or abortion, is kept private and safe.” The company is located in Europe and said it is obligated to comply with privacy protections, as required by European law.
“It is important to understand that European law protects our community’s sensitive health data,” Clue said. “Our business model is direct to consumer subscriptions — our users are our customers, nobody else is.”
But experts like Jason Hong, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, warn that these kinds of protections may not be enough to protect pregnant women from prosecution.
“It’s really hard to understand how your data is being used and where it’s being shared because it could be many, many third parties, and those third parties can also resell to other third parties,” Hong says. “Your data could actually be all over the network at this point. And it’s really hard to track what’s going on.”
So, should women start deleting their period tracking apps?
These programs are designed to help women stay on top of their menstrual cycles, but experts say users need to weigh the benefits against the potential risk of prosecution.
“If I lived in a state where abortion was actively being criminalized, I would not use a period tracker — that’s for sure,” said Ford. “If you want to be safe, use a paper calendar.”