CSU data privacy expert on concerns with period tracking apps after Roe v. Wade ruling

Period Tracking Apps

After the Supreme Court issued an opinion last week overturning Roe v. Wade, many people took to Twitter to warn women to immediately delete their period tracking apps, cautioning that they could potentially be used against them in states that ban abortion.

A 2019 survey found that nearly a third of U.S. women use these apps to track menstrual cycles and help predict fertility windows and the timing of their periods. 

Colorado State University Marketing Professor Kelly Martin is an expert on customer data privacy. She spoke to SOURCE about whether recent concerns about period tracker apps are founded and what consumers can do to protect their personal data. 

What privacy dangers exist with period tracking apps? 

Right now, given that the overturning of Roe is so fresh, it is difficult to predict what individual states might do to criminalize abortion. Currently, the criminal focus is more on the providers of abortions rather than individual women. Of course, the focus could shift. For example, already many states criminalize miscarriage induced from illicit drug use. Therefore, a period tracking app might pinpoint the stop in menstruation and provide specific details about a likely pregnancy (and its termination), and could be used as one source of potential evidence that confirms a pregnancy occurred. 

Do different privacy laws govern these trackers versus other apps, since it’s health information? 

This is a great question that I am glad you asked. Many people are under the false assumption that any health data, at least here in the U.S., is protected under HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. However, it is unlikely the drafters of this protection envisioned the way health information and data would be produced, collected, and shared via the different health tracking apps available to consumers today. And no, the data produced, stored, and shared by these apps is not covered by HIPAA, making this type of personal data mostly unregulated here in the U.S.

Kelly Martin portrait
A portrait of CSU Professor Kelly Martin, who studies data privacy.

What should you look for in “the terms of service” if you choose to use one of these apps?

It is incredibly difficult for consumers to evaluate these apps themselves. A great resource is the Consumer Reports Digital Lab that evaluates different technologies and their privacy terms. According to their research, two key things to look for with period trackers are whether the app’s data remains on one’s phone (better for the consumer) or whether the data are stored in the app provider’s cloud (greater privacy risk), and also whether the app shares data with a third-party app tracker. Consumer Reports has evaluated several different period tracking apps, but there are hundreds of options in the market, many of which are untested. Likewise, some don’t make their privacy policies available until you download the app, making it very hard to evaluate in advance. 

Let’s say you went ahead and deleted your period tracker app. Is the data still out there and available for someone to find? 

Most apps promise to anonymize and de-identify your data, meaning that they separate your name from your user account data. This practice allows the company to promise privacy protection and that one might never need to exercise the deletion option. However, even if a consumer seeks to delete her account and remove her name, the data that remains can be almost as precise as one’s name. They include attributes such as date of birth, height, weight and user location, which often specifies one’s address within a city block. The bottom line is that once data is created, it never really disappears, especially if the app provider contracts with third party app trackers or sells your data to other companies. Otherwise, the data is never truly gone unless they never left your phone or computer to begin with.  

What else should privacy-minded people know about this topic? 

Many low-tech options for effectively tracking menstrual cycles do exist, such as a rudimentary spreadsheet stored locally on one’s computer or even an offline calendar. Apple’s health data app allows women to track their cycles and keeps the data stored on the phone. Although these may not have the extra features of some period tracking apps, they can be quite effective in preserving one’s data privacy.