Image Source: Getty / Kilito Chan
When the Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, it set off a firestorm of reactions — and rightfully so. Celebrities spoke up, TikTok activists rallied behind the pro-choice movement, and hashtags like #RoevWade were trending on Twitter.
Predictably, the ample news coverage has kicked up a myriad of questions about what the overturning of Roe v. Wade means — and not just for abortion access, but for other matters, too. (Will IVF become illegal? Will same-sex marriage be overturned? Should you stock up on emergency contraception?)
In a viral tweet posted back in May, after the leaked opinion indicated the SCOTUS was likely to overturn Roe, Elizabeth C. McLaughlin, an author, attorney, and activist, wrote, "If you are using an online period tracker or tracking your cycle through your phone, get off it and delete your data."
If you are using an online period tracker or tracking your cycles through your phone, get off it and delete your data.— Elizabeth C. McLaughlin (she/her) (@ECMcLaughlin) May 3, 2022
In the long thread, she went on to accuse Peter Thiel — an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who invested in Palantir, a spy technology system — of allegedly selling "data tracking the locations of marginalized people to the government."
"If you think that your data showing when you last menstruated isn't of interest to those who are about to outlaw abortion, whew do I have a wakeup call for YOU," she continued. "Combine that with location tracking information and when you last menstruated and where you are seeking healthcare and you have a target on your back."
She also emphasized that "a prosecutor can subpoena your period data from any company and that company can be forced by a court to comply."
On June 24, in President Biden's White House address following the Court releasing its official decision, he too seemed to voice concern for the privacy rights of those who use period-tracking apps. In his speech, he said: "Some states are saying that they'll try to ban or severely restrict access to these [abortion] medications. But extremist governors and state legislatures are looking to block the mail or search a person's medicine cabinet or control a woman's actions by tracking data on her apps she uses," said Biden. "[They] are wrong and extreme and out of touch with the majority of Americans."
Although it may feel extreme or far-fetched to consider having to be cautious about menstrual tracking apps, the reality is that many of us never thought we'd see Roe v. Wade overturned, and yet here we are. So, we decided to fact-check with actual experts whether you should be wary about having a period-tracker app on your phone, now that the post-Roe v. Wade world is officially here.
Should People Delete Their Period-Tracking Apps?
Potentially. It depends on several factors, including if you live in a state where abortion is now illegal, if you use a period-tracking app to regularly monitor your cycle, and if you had an abortion. If all ring true, then "it's possible your period-tracking apps data could be subpoenaed and therefore used against you in court," Marco Bellin, a data security expert and the founder and CEO of Datacappy VPN (a business dedicated to aiding individuals in preserving their privacy and helping them use the internet securely), says.
Here's how it works: Because you use period-tracking app data to see when you're ovulating, track your cycle, and monitor period-related symptoms, it's possible the data you input could be used to predict when you'd likely fall pregnant. And in the case you have an abortion, "it could possibly be used to prove that an individual became pregnant and eventually did not have a child — or to prove when specifically someone became pregnant," Bellin says.
Of course, this will heavily depend on what each individual's state jurisdiction looks like around privacy rules, but David Reischer, Esq., attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com, confirms that legally, there is no law in place that would restrict private companies (e.g., period-tracking apps) from turning over data. "Theoretically, private companies could hand the data to big government to be used for prosecution in an illegal-abortion trial."
Legally, there is no law in place that would restrict private companies from turning over data to the government.
This could be because period-tracking apps have no HIPAA protection, Bellin says. (Reminder that HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, and it is a federal law that "protects sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient's consent or knowledge," per the CDC.)
Since period-tracking apps have no HIPAA protection, this means app developers do not have to protect your personal information. And since "any free app collects information from you in order to make a profit, depending on the laws created, most of your digital information will be able to be subpoenaed by a court of law and thereby used against you if the actions you are taking are somehow deemed illegal," Bellin confirms.
For this reason, Bellin says that you should probably avoid using period-tracking apps — and any tracking app in general — since "they gather highly personal information and are not required to keep it confidential."
As for what period-tracking apps are doing in the midst of all this: On June 30, Flo — an ovulation calendar, period tracker, and pregnancy app — released a new feature called "Anonymous Mode" with the intent to better protect your health information. This feature will allow subscribers to "use the Flo app without any personal identifying information such as a name, email address, and technical identifier being associated with their account," according to the app.
Flo also added, "in the event that Flo receives an official request to identify a user by name or email, Anonymous Mode will prevent Flo from being able to connect data to an individual, meaning Flo would not be able to satisfy the request." (If you're interested in reading more about Flo's privacy practices regarding its data-protection policies, you can do that here.)
While this is just one example of what period-tracking apps are doing to make users feel more safe, it's OK to still feel majorly freaked out or skeptical. And fortunately, you do have other options if you are not comfortable using a period-tracking app right now. Bellin recommends either using a handwritten tracker for your menstrual cycle or updating it in an Excel spreadsheet. He warns, however, to avoid using the term "menstruation" or "period" on any tracker created online. Instead, "use an emoji or a fake term that you create, so if somebody gains access to your calendar or spreadsheet, they can't decipher your code and track your menstruation."
All in all, know that conversations like this are not meant to scare you — though we admit, they can be scary. But at a time when people have lost the right to bodily autonomy, it's important to do everything in your power to protect yourself — especially when it's apparent the government does not want to protect you. So if you feel better deleting your period-tracking app, you should feel empowered to make that decision. If you don't want to, you should also feel empowered to make that decision. Because after all, it's important you have a choice to do whatever you want — in every facet of your life.