Should you delete your period-tracking app after Roe reversal? Experts explain privacy risks.

·5 min read

Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 11, and has been updated to reflect the Supreme Court's decision of June 24 to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Period-tracking apps know a lot about you. They keep tabs on your menstrual cycles and predict fertile windows, collecting information like period length, symptoms, mood and sex drive.

Now, users with privacy concerns fear the intimate data on the apps could be used against them if they seek an abortion amid the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Striking down the 1973 landmark decision leaves abortion policy in the hands of individual states. If states criminalize abortion, the data collected by fertility and cycle monitoring apps could be used by law enforcement in investigations, experts said.

"It might seem like a kind of overstretch to say that these kinds of apps could be used to prosecute people," said Korica Simon, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. "But you know, government officials are only kind of one step away from going from internet searches to going to apps to get more information about whether someone has sought an abortion."

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What are the privacy risks of period-tracking apps?

Reproductive health apps already had a spotty record regarding privacy.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission settled with the period- and pregnancy-tracking app Flo after it shared users' data with marketing firms like Facebook and Google despite promising the information would be private.

A 2020 review by Consumer Reports found shortcomings in how five popular period tracker apps handle sensitive user data, including sharing information with marketers to target advertising.

The information stored in health apps isn't covered by the federal privacy law Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, so companies can legally share the data.

We don't always know how apps use the data, said Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"It's an industrywide problem, though, that applications get to use data as they see fit because there aren't these comprehensive privacy laws put in place," Barnett said.

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Could the data be used by law enforcement?

More than 20 states have laws or constitutional amendments in place to ban abortions as soon as possible if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, according to Guttmacher Institute.

In states where abortion becomes a crime, data from period-tracking apps could become a target for subpoenas in investigations on suspected abortions.

"The company could decide that they are going to fight that subpoena but typically they don't," Simon said.

And if law enforcement obtains your phone through a warrant, the digital data stored on your device could become a liability, Simon said.

The ruling in Roe v. Wade rested on the right to privacy, but the leaked draft opinion suggests abortion isn't protected under any constitutional provision, said Michael Ulrich, an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Law and School of Public Health.

"If that's the reason why the right to abortion isn't protected, then it's hard to make a privacy argument as to why health data shouldn't be something that the state or police will be able to get access to in certain circumstances," Ulrich said.

Are the risks worth the benefits?

Millions of people use period-tracking apps for a variety of reasons. The tools allow users to monitor period symptoms and can help those who are trying to conceive, among other features.

When considering an app, Barnett said, users should review their privacy policies, noting how they respond to law enforcement and what their data retention policies are. She said there are apps such as Euki, which claim to have stronger protections.

"But I think a swifter more comprehensive solution would be broader, comprehensive privacy laws put in place that all apps all internet platforms must respect," Barnett said.

The issue of privacy regarding abortions goes beyond period-tracking apps, Barnett said, as they're only a "small part of the ecosystem of tools and things that can be weaponized against people."

"There's a lot of, I think, fearmongering happening accidentally from people that are saying, 'Delete your period tracker apps now,' and I don't think that's helpful," Barnett said. "I think they are useful applications, and there are still ways to find them useful, but it needs to be thought of on a bigger scale."

Whether people should stop using period-tracking apps is a matter each user should decide for themselves, Ulrich said.

"It's just more pressure on an individual to either not get these benefits for potential fear of the data being used against them, or using it and both sort of having that fear but also hoping that there isn't a scenario down the line where it's being used against them," Ulrich said.

But even if you decide to delete the app today, the data it already collected may be harder to purge.

"Companies get all of this information on their users, and there's no indication that they're ever going to get rid of this data," Simon said. "It seems like they're just storing it indefinitely."

Simon said the privacy risks outweigh the benefits of the apps. She said, while it's unlikely a prosecutor would rely solely on an app to prosecute someone, "they are likely to use that data to help build a case against that person."

"Even if someone thinks they wouldn't ever be in this position, you just never know."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Period tracking apps and Roe v. Wade: Privacy concerns after ruling