Potential Roe v. Wade ruling sparks fear over tracking apps

- Amanda Pérez Pintado

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 leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Striking down the 1973 landmark decision would leave 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.”

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 industry wide 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.

Could the data be used in court?

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, fear mongering 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.”

 ?? MEGAN SMITH/USA TODAY ?? If the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, period-tracking apps could present even bigger privacy risks in some states.
MEGAN SMITH/USA TODAY If the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, period-tracking apps could present even bigger privacy risks in some states.

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