Period Tracking and Privacy in the Post-Roe Age

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Just as many of our calendars have become digitized in the last decade, millions use apps like Flo and Clue to track their menstrual cycles. Yet in light of the leaked draft of the Supreme Court opinion on Roe v. Wade comes a rising concern for the possibility of this health data being used as a penalty for those seeking an abortion. 

Read NPR writer Rina Torchinsky’s take on the issue below in her piece, How period tracking apps and data privacy fit into a post-Roe v. Wade climate (May 10, 2022):

The personal health data stored in these apps is among the most intimate types of information a person can share. And it can also be telling. The apps can show when their period stops and starts and when a pregnancy stops and starts.

That has privacy experts on edge, because if abortion is ever criminalized, this data — whether subpoenaed or sold to a third party — could be used to suggest that someone has had or is considering 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,” says 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.”

And “it’s more than just period apps” we should worry about:

Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, says period apps aren’t the only ways technology can be used to connect someone to an abortion. If someone is sitting in the waiting room of a clinic that offers abortion services and is playing a game on their phone, that app might be collecting location data, she says.

“Any app that is collecting sensitive information about your health or your body should be given an additional level of scrutiny,” Greer says.

Search histories could also be identifying, says Brown. Activist groups — regardless of what they’re advocating for — might try to purchase a dataset that would show where people have been searching for information related to abortion.

For a further analysis of the risk of health surveillance, read through Professor Deborah Lupton of the University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia’s Faculty of Arts & Design’s illuminating article, “Quantified sex: a critical analysis of sexual and reproductive self-tracking using apps,” (June 11, 2014). Below is the abstract:

Digital health technologies are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, health education and voluntary self-surveillance, self-quantification and self-care practices. This paper presents a critical analysis of one digital health device: computer apps used to self-track features of users’ sexual and reproductive activities and functions. After a review of the content of such apps available in the Apple App Store and Google playe store, some of their sociocultural, ethical and political implications are discussed. These include the role played by these apps in participatory surveillance, their configuration of sexuality and reproduction, the valorising of the quantification of the body in the context of neoliberalism and self-responsibility, and issues concerning privacy, data security and the use of the data collected by these apps. It is suggested that such apps represent sexuality and reproduction in certain defined and limited ways that work to perpetuate normative stereotypes and assumptions about women and men as sexual and reproductive subjects. Furthermore there are significant ethical and privacy implications emerging from the use of these apps and the data they produce. The paper ends with suggestions concerning the ‘queering’ of such technologies in response to these issues. 

Read the complete article here.


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