Some period tracking applications share data with third parties. With the potential abolition of abortion protection in the United States, people are considering whether the data collected by these applications can be used as evidence against them.
May 9, 2022
The recent expiration of a draft opinion the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested that Roe v. Wade could be overturned by abolishing the right to abortion across the country. The outlook has again raised questions about the confidentiality of period tracking applications. Some applications share data with third parties for advertising or research purposes, which raises concerns that this data could be used as evidence against anyone seeking or receiving an abortion in states that prohibit the procedure if Rowe v. Wade is revoked.
What kind of data is at risk?
Period tracking applications vary in scope. For some people, they record simple details, such as when their cycle begins and ends, and the app predicts when their cycle will arrive in the future and when they will ovulate. Others also act as social sites, with calendars, nutrition tips and forums where users can chat about their sexual desire or share experiences in their attempts to conceive.
The data that can be sold by these applications depends on what is in the conditions, although they can be hundreds of pages long and difficult to decipher. Some applications promise to remove identifying details such as username, address, or email before selling or sharing any data, but this may not include details such as an IP address that may be associated with a specific device.
“Machine learning technicians are so sophisticated that you don’t have to have a person’s name to uniquely identify them,” said Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public research group.
This would create a headache if the US Supreme Court overturned protection against abortion across the country. If the draft opinion is approved, states will have the power to write their own laws on the legality – and illegality – of abortion.
“If you live in places where abortion is illegal, it would be a bad idea to put ‘I had an abortion’ on Facebook, Twitter or a tracking app,” he said. India McKinney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Also, it shouldn’t be so explicit, as many apps collect location data. “When this little blue dot goes from this house to this office, you have a pretty good idea who it is,” McKinney said.
Can location data be bought and sold?
In general, location data is extremely easy and cheap to buy, as in Vice News motherboard discovered when he purchased such data for a week from data broker SafeGraph. The data shows where people come from and where they come from after visiting Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization for reproductive health.
A a recent law passed in Texas prohibits most abortions, since the heart of the embryo can be detected by ultrasound, which occurs at about 6 weeks. It offers $ 10,000 in rewards to those who successfully sue people for abortions that occur after that time, giving them a reason to look for the data.
Law enforcement can access this information without a warrant by buying it, McKinney said. “It’s legal.”
Aren’t my health data protected by law?
Some period tracking applications claim to be “HIPAA compliant”, suggesting that they are linked to Law on Portability and Accountability of Health Insurance, a law that protects health and medical information. The rule applies to groups such as hospitals, health centers and insurance companies, limiting what they can share and disclose. However, HIPAA does not protect data collected from applications that one may download from Apple’s App Store or Google Play.
“I think this is a common misconception,” he said Quinn Grandi at the University of Toronto in Canada. “Not all health-related data is treated in the same way under the law.”
Do I need to delete my cycle tracking application?
McKinney understands the desire to delete periodic trackers, but says it’s like not buying a car because you don’t want someone smashing it on the street. Instead, it suggests that you be careful about what you post, choose privacy-guaranteed apps that you agree with, and decline the app’s request to use location data. Navigation apps need to know your location, but an ovulation tracking app probably doesn’t.
Ultimately, stricter privacy laws would help. “I don’t want to live in a world where I trust the app to do the right thing with my personal sensitive data,” McKinney said.
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