Should You Delete Your Period-Tracking App to Protect Your Privacy?

Why apps used to track periods or fertility aren't the only privacy concerns in a post-Roe world.

Hands of woman on her phone deleting period tracking app
Photo: Getty Images

Should you get rid of your period-tracking app? The general consensus on social media is yes—but according to privacy experts, period-tracking apps aren't the only concern.

The reasoning comes down to the protections that were conferred by Roe v. Wade, and now the lack of those protections, in conjunction with a lack of meaningful data privacy protection laws in the United States, according to Lia Holland, campaigns and communications director with Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group focusing on digital rights.

The data collected on period-tracking apps—along with your search history and text messages—could potentially be used by law enforcement to penalize individuals who received an abortion, as well as people who performed or helped someone else get an abortion in some states.

Here's what to know about the privacy concerns connected to period-tracking apps and other digital tools, and how you can use them safely to protect yourself and others.

The Personal Data on Your Phone Has Little to No Protection

Our phones are reservoirs for our most intimate data, according to Danielle Citron, JD, an expert in privacy law at University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book The Fight for Privacy: Protecting Dignity, Identity, and Love in the Digital Age. When we use apps, such as period-tracking apps, we are freely handing over personal and private information about ourselves—and our reproductive health—to companies that can sell that information to basically anyone who wants it, and make a profit.

"Essentially, an app can collect whatever data it wants on you and store that data indefinitely and sell it to a third party if they so desire, like a data-broker, in most states without any restrictions whatsoever," Holland told Health.

There is little to no protection on this data and it's an extremely real concern that people's private information can be bought and used to penalize them for providing or receiving an abortion in a state that prohibits the procedure. "You don't need a warrant to have those data streams, you often don't need any permission, you can just buy it," Citron told Health.

According to Holland, data brokers have already been packaging cell phone location data so that people can buy and see whose phones have been around a Planned Parenthood clinic. A report recently released by Surveillance Technology Oversight Project found that anti-abortion groups have been tracking people's search history, location, messaging, and online activity to identify people suspected of seeking an abortion.

"This is happening now and abortion patients as well as their friends and family should be concerned about the information that is being collected and shared," Holland said. Law enforcement could access your data—which could include everything from a missed period to your location—as a form of evidence, too. "That certainly can be obtained through a subpoena or warrant," Citron said.

Because most apps, period-tracking apps included, are considered lifestyle apps, they aren't covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), according to Jason Hong, PhD, a privacy and security expert with the CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University. The law provides privacy standards in order to protect patients' medical records and other health information shared with doctors and other healthcare providers, hospitals, and health insurance companies—not fertility or period-tracking apps.

Given all the uncertainty and risks, privacy experts are advising people to delete their period-tracking apps and opt for something safer. But you may have to do more than just removing the app from your phone. "If you're deleting your app, it's a good idea to also request that companies delete data about you too," Hong said. Though the European Union has legislation requiring companies to delete data if users request so, in the United States, only California has a similar requirement in place, Hong added.

Internet Search History and Text Messages Can Put You at Risk, Too

The same risks that come with period-tracking apps can also apply to your internet search history. This information can be easily accessed if you're not using a privacy browser. Again, there are no protections from HIPAA regarding the health information you browse online. "Our searches are information owned by search companies and subject to sale," said Citron. "That information can also be incriminating."

Your conversations with your doctor, however, are protected by HIPPA—that's a much safer way to discuss and learn about health and abortion care, said Holland.

This isn't a concern just for those who live in states with abortion bans. Law enforcement in restrictive states can access data from more liberal states, according to Holland. Phone surveillance data also tracks whose phones we associate with or communicate with often. "If your phone is associated with—either through spending time or a lot of communication that can be tracked—an abortion patient's phone, your interests are often collected in order to market both to you and your friend," said Holland. This is why, for example, you and your friends might be targeted with the same ads when you're hanging out together or texting more frequently.

As a best practice, to protect not only yourself but your loved ones as well, you'll want to use a privacy browser—like DuckDuckGo or Firefox Focus—that won't store or sell your data. Incognito browsers are better than nothing, but they don't really cut it, said Holland. They still work on a surveillance business model, so it's best to use a browser that doesn't require you to activate special privacy settings.

If you're texting about abortion care, it's also wise to communicate over Signal or WhatsApp—both of which are encrypted. Even if privacy isn't a concern of yours personally, using these apps and browsers is a way to be in solidarity with those who are concerned. "The more we use those apps, the more their use is normalized," said Holland.

More Legislation Is Needed to Protect Digital Privacy

There's an urgent need for lawmakers to act and pass legislation protecting our digital privacy. There's also a need for companies to step up and commit to protecting (and not selling) our health data. According to Hong, there's a lot private companies can do to protect sensitive health data, but the challenge is that those techniques don't always align with their business models. For example, there are many free apps that profit off of sending their data to Facebook. In general, paid apps are safer than free apps, according to Hong.

Privacy experts have been sounding the alarm on this issue for years, but there has been minimal action. "People with uteruses across the country are now experiencing the very long-term failure of lawmakers and companies alike to safeguard our personal data," Holland said.

The My Body, My Data bill that was introduced on June 16 is a great start to protecting people's personal reproductive health data, said Holland. If enacted, the bill would prohibit companies from collecting, disclosing or misusing reproductive health data collected on websites and apps.

According to Citron, The Health and Location Data Protection Act, also in the pipeline, would ban brokers from selling location and health data and allow individuals to sue in order to enforce the law. But this legislation, even if adopted, will not solve all the issues around our privacy. "That will help but is it going to solve the problem? Of course not," said Citron.

Period-tracking apps can be extremely useful tools to track and understand our reproductive health. "We should not be living in a world where we are afraid to keep track of our medical information," Holland said.

Safer Period-Tracking Options

Period-tracking apps are useful tools for many people, and there are some period apps that are safer than others. The experts in this piece recommend using Drip, Euki, or Periodical as these apps store the data locally on your phone rather than uploading your data to the cloud (in which case the app owns, controls and stores your data). If law enforcement, data brokers, or a private citizen was trying to buy your data from the Euki app, for example, they wouldn't be able to since the data lives on your phone, said Holland.

Hong also recommended using the Apple HealthKit if you have an iPhone. "The reason is that Apple put a lot of thought into encrypting data when it is sent over the network and when it is stored, so that even Apple can't access your data," Hong said. It's worth mentioning that if you were involved in a legal case, law enforcement could still potentially find a way to obtain your cell phone for evidence, according to Citron.

If you've been using an app that sends your data to the cloud, you should delete it, Holland said. It's also a good idea to turn off location tracking on your phone if you plan to visit a health clinic in a state that bans abortion. Some period-tracking apps have recently stated they will anonymize users' data before sharing it with third parties, but Citron said it's incredibly easy to re-identify information. "The idea that your health information is being anonymized is so incredibly misleading," Citron said.

Any company is going to comply with legal requests to access data. If a company has your data and law enforcement comes after them, they will give it to them, said Holland.

"Overall, the best thing that we can do," said Holland, "is make choices to use services on our phones that protect us and protect the people we care about."

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