Roe v. Wade was overturned on June 24, making abortion no longer protected at the federal level. Since then, people have taken to the streets to protest, abortion funds have received record donations, and celebrities have shared their powerful abortion stories.
And on August 10th, a woman in Nebraska was charged for helping her teenage daughter get an abortion when she was around 24 weeks pregnant, per NPR. Investigators there uncovered Facebook messages where the two discussed using medication to induce an abortion.
The news is causing people to think twice about how they communicate about their reproductive health, and how they use certain apps. Some people are even wondering if they should delete the period-tracking apps from their phones altogether. That’s because much of the data people enter into their devices is collected, stored, and even sold, according to a 2014 Carnegie Mellon University study.
For example, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint in January 2021 against popular period-tracking app Flo. The agency claimed that from 2016 to 2019, the company behind Flo passed on health details of its users to marketing and analytics companies like Facebook and Google.
Later that month, Flo settled the claims, per Reuters. The FTC announced an agreement that requires Flo to obtain users’ consent before sharing health data and to notify affected users about the information disclosure.
MORE FROM INSIDE REPORTS
And now that access to abortions is restricted by some states, data privacy experts say it may become dangerous to use these apps, depending on where you live. Since these apps collect your data, they must turn it over to law enforcement if they are subpoenaed, says Lia Holland, Campaigns and Communications Director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit advocacy group.
Women’s Health consulted three privacy experts and two lawyers to see how safe it is to log your period digitally.
Meet the experts:
Lia Holland is the Campaigns and Communications Director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit advocacy group.
Danielle K. Citron is a professor of law at the University of Virginia, and author of the upcoming book The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age
Halle Tecco is a healthcare focused entrepreneur and investor.
Eva Blum-Dumontet is a tech policy consultant.
Dana Sussman is a lawyer and Deputy Executive Director of the National Advocates For Pregnant Women.
How are apps collecting my data?
All period-tracking apps collect your information, says Danielle K. Citron, professor of law at the University of Virginia, and author of the upcoming book The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age.
Some period-tracking apps have data collection built into their model—meaning they collect any data you input into the app. Some collect your name, email address, phone number, how regular your period is, how frequent it is, when your last period was, and your location data, says Holland: “They make a profit selling the data.”
“Many of these apps are already selling your data to third parties, such as advertisers,” says Halle Tecco, a health-care focused entrepreneur and investor. “Worse yet—those third parties can further sell or share your data without notifying you.”
Other apps don’t sell your information, but they collect your data and store it on the cloud or on your phone as part of their service, adds Holland.
And since these period-tracking app companies hold your data, they must comply with any subpoenas from law enforcement that have to do with your data, says Holland. So, if the police has a reason to suspect that you got an illegal abortion, any information that you’re putting into apps about your period could be of interest.
Period-tracking apps probably won’t be the main evidence that could be used against you, however.
“Your text messages, your Google searches, your online purchases are far more likely and far more of a low-hanging fruit and probably more information can be gleaned from that than directly from a period-tracking app,” says Sussman.
In 2017, Latice Fisher was found in her Mississippi home by paramedics next to a lifeless, 35-week-old fetus with an umbilical cord still attached, per The Washington Post.
Although Fischer at first told paramedics that she didn’t know she was expecting, she later admitted that she knew about the pregnancy. When she voluntarily turned over her phone to the police, her Google search history revealed that she had typed how to “buy Misopristol Abortion Pill Online” into the search engine 10 days earlier.
However, there was no evidence that she’d actually taken the pills—only that she bought them. But that, along with her search history, was enough for the prosecutors to attempt to charge her with “killing her infant child.” Fisher spent several weeks in jail before a grand jury declined to bring charges.
How does my phone track my location?
Your apps use location services, like GPS, to help you navigate or book a restaurant reservation.
And your phone’s location preferences can be set individually based on the app, to either never use your location, to use it only when you’re on the app, or to use it all the time, Holland says.
That means that your phone could be tracking your location even if you’re not using it. And if your phone is completely turned off, the battery died, or you’re not connected to wifi, there’s still a small possibility that your location can be tracked, Holland says. She recommends leaving your phone at home if you don’t want your location to be tracked.
There’s also a possibility that if a developer uses a preset kit to code their new app, any location-tracking data could be fed to third parties or data brokers, Holland adds. “That’s how the person who wrote that code and gave it away for free makes a profit,” she explains. “Embedded within it is a bunch of surveillance, and developers often aren’t even looking.” Translation: It’s pretty hard for people to figure out how their location data is being used.
On May 3rd, Vice’s Motherboard published a report about a data location firm selling information surrounding people that were visiting clinics providing abortions, such as where the visitors were coming from, how long they stayed there, and where they went when they left. After Vice bought the data, the data broker SafeGraph stopped selling the location data of those visiting these clinics.
But the chances of getting sued just for going near an abortion clinic may not be high if there isn’t additional proof, says Sussman: “Just being near the bank when it’s being robbed would not survive in a criminal case.”
But isn’t my data safe under HIPAA?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which ensures your health information will be protected under your consent, doesn’t apply here, says Holland.
HIPAA ensures that things like diagnoses, medical test results, and prescription information will be kept between yourself and your medical provider to keep your health private. However, it doesn’t protect all medical data on your phone.
Should I delete my period-tracking app?
Blum-Dumontet, who published research on the privacy of these period-tracking apps in 2020, doesn’t necessarily believe everyone should delete them—especially if they’re helpful for people who get their periods.
Whether you want to keep the app or not depends on your own situation, Blum-Dumontet says. She recommends weighing the pros and cons. Consider if your anxiety surrounding using an app outweighs the convenience it provides. It also depends on the state you live in, she says.
“I don’t wanna come across as a person who wants to give people a full sense of security,” she told WH. “Is there a possibility that this data can be subpoenaed and obtained in court? Yes.”
Realistically, if you live in a state where abortion is legal, there’s very little risk to using a period-tracking app. However, if you live in a state where abortion is restricted or illegal, and you’d plan to seek an abortion if you became pregnant, “the risk is far higher than the benefit,” says Sussman.
Are there any period-tracking apps that privacy experts recommend?
Choose an app that keeps your data under your control exclusively, Holland says. She suggests finding a privacy focused period app, which stores your information on your phone.
That way, if the companies are subpoenaed, they can tell law enforcement that they don’t store the information, per their company’s policy—it’s up to the person’s control, says Holland. However, if law enforcement has a warrant, they can seize your phone and review its contents without your consent, says Citron.
“Many period-tracking apps have recently announced new measures they’re taking to enhance user privacy,” Tecco explains. “It’s best to review their privacy policies to understand if your personal information is at risk.”
Will my data be protected if I pay for a premium version of a period-tracking app?
Not necessarily. “There may be some cases where there’s a period-tracking app that says you can pay for premium to store on your phone,” Holland says. She adds that paying money for the app tends to give you access to more features, not privacy.
Should I delete my period-tracking app if I’m planning to get an abortion?
Yes. If you’re actively seeking an abortion in a state where it is illegal, uninstall the app from your phone and contact the app company to see if they can delete your information from their servers, Holland says. “Deleting the app generally isn’t enough,” she adds.
Sussman agrees. If you’ve gotten an abortion in a state that has banned it, she says to “delete as much information as you can about it from your phone.” She suggests using encrypted messaging to communicate about the procedure.
Addison Aloian (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Women’s Health. When she’s not writing about all things pop culture, health, beauty, and fashion, she loves hitting leg day at the gym, shopping at Trader Joe’s, and watching whichever hockey game is on TV. Her work has also appeared in Allure, StyleCaster, L’Officiel USA, V Magazine, and Modern Luxury Media.