If you’re a woman between the ages of 15 and 50, equipped with a smartphone and a consumer of apps, chances are you’re one of the millions of users dedicated to monthly monitoring. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering challenging the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy (abortion) across the United States, it raises important privacy issues. Even in France and Europe, where health data is considered sensitive, and therefore subject to special protection by the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), these tools are not insignificant.
Cycle observation, fertility or pre-menstrual syndrome monitoring, contraceptive management… whether they want to have children or not, users of the monthly monitoring application find it very useful. Problem: These technologies are not necessarily as precise as they boast. After all, according to American Media Vox, they are more designed for “men, marketers and medical companies” than end users. In early 2014, sociologist Janet Vertessy estimated that digital data for pregnant women could cost up to 1.5 1.5, compared to 10 cents for the average Internet user.
The reason for this change is simple: these women have a very lucrative business goal, to purchase as many products for themselves as possible for the newborn or the whole family. But “outside of advertising, these applications create real privacy issues,” said Raina Stamboliska, a cybersecurity expert. He prefers to talk about “protection of intimacy” rather than private life, emphasizing that “we all have something to hide; what I want to hide from others is different from what you or your parents want to keep to yourself.” The other person will not have the same value.
In the United States, for example, the Ovia application retains health information collected from its users at the service of their employers. The idea was to help them guess when an employee plans to return to work after pregnancy. On paper, this is not necessarily negative, but the risk of abuse is high – in France, such use would be unimaginable as it would directly violate the privacy surrounding medical leave. While many other customers may be interested in monthly app data, Raina Stamboliska noted: “Insurers, the bank that gave you credit …” Of course, in Europe, GDPR needs to be clear and accessible so that users know what to do with their data. “But in practice, this obligation is not respected. Users rarely have this information, which prevents them from actually mastering the technology they use on a daily basis.”
NGO Privacy International is closely monitoring the situation: in 2018, it found that 61% of 36 applications tested – including German Clue or Period Tracker, Simple Design Ltd, installed on Virgin Islands – automatically sent data to Facebook. In 2020, it was the turn of the American and Norwegian Consumer Protection Associations to publish their reports, noting the undue circulation of personal data from each monthly tracking application. In early 2021, the Federal Trade Commission again condemned the American application floor, used by more than 100 million people worldwide for sharing data with Facebook without their consent.
In the context of the fragility of abortion rights, this creates very specific problems. It costs just 160 from brokers like SafeGraph or Placer, for example, to recover the equivalent of one week’s worth of geolocation data from people visiting a family planning center. There is. Raina Stamboliska comments, “If you are part of a group that is determined to deprive women of their right to control their bodies, it is easier to notice their political message when they go to the abortion center – not to mention those monthly tracking applications. This type of group is funded directly and information is disseminated to avoid the most effective contraceptives – this is the case with FEMM, the Guardian published in 2019.
State pressure, domestic violence
If, like Poland, abortion is illegal, it is not impossible to imagine that the data collected by menstruation tracking applications could turn against those who would register their cycle suspension there for a few weeks. In the United States, there has been at least one case of digital data being used to imprison a woman: in Mississippi, Lattis Fisher was accused of killing her stillborn child on such a belief, among other things, their Internet search history.
Not to mention the legal use, monthly tracking applications, like many other technologies, can be misused in domestic violence. “Imagine being pregnant by someone who has cookies on your phone, monitors your browsing and location, and you don’t want to have children. What are you doing Raina asks Stamboliska. For women in an uncertain emotional or even financial situation, the invasion of online privacy complicates everything. “They find themselves imagining a combined solution on their normal route, going to the pharmacy in the middle of their shopping trip, to find out, for example,” without a doubt. “But how can I hide my visit to the hospital?” A
Assess your privacy risk
Using a monthly tracking app is not inherently dangerous – there are even some privacy-conscious options, such as Drip or Yuki. For Rayna Stamboliyska, the challenge is rather “reflection of Internet users and developers asking themselves what the risks of such tools are – like other digital technologies in this regard – when they adopt or create them”. The owner of a smartphone wonders what the risks are before installing an app, “a bit like we’re used to predicting the risk of consuming such products when they’re already expired, or crossing the road when we’re not. Zebra Crossing. And if Row vs. US.” While Wade has been effectively repealed in the United States, training women in the first reflection of digital data protection could become an important step for pro-abortion workers.