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Privacy Concerns of FemTech Apps in the wake of Roe v. Wade News

The number of women using apps to map, manage and examine their own bodies has skyrocketed in recent years. In the United States, about one in five women between the ages of 18 and 49 currently uses health apps, and the industry is projected to be a $50 billion market by 2025. Empowering women to take ownership of their own health has helped to drive a revolution called “Femtech”.

Apps like Flo and Clue allow people to track their periods, body temperature, fertile windows, ovulation dates, spotting and mood. Positioning themselves as women-friendly organizations, they use language of empowerment, liberation, and agency in their copy. One of Clue’s co-founders, Ida Tin, even coined the neologism “femtech” in 2016, an umbrella term for “the group of technologies designed to support and advance women’s healthcare.”

But despite this claim to female empowerment and liberation, menstrual trackers and other health apps are also restrictive, even regressive, and pose serious potential risks to user privacy.

Many people who use these apps report the positive impact they have on their lives. They convey a sense of mastery over bodies that are often unpredictable or unruly. They also help women communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. Avid app user Sophie, who along with others agreed to speak to the Daily Dot as long as only her first name was used, said: “It’s handy. I feel a lot less stupid going to doctor’s appointments and having to say when my last period was – it feels like I’ve kind of failed as a woman not being able to remember.”

Some people use them to track their premenstrual symptoms, others to help them get pregnant, and some use them as a form of birth control or family planning. They can actually offer “personalized health insights.”

“I find tracking my symptoms throughout my period to be quite a therapeutic activity — it feels both reassuring to see regular trends and to feel like I’m progressing through the low points of my cycle.” Both Elizabeth (31 ) and Victoria (29) both used tracking apps when trying to conceive. Elizabeth told the Daily Dot, “It felt positive to be proactive in recording the data and to get a sense of knowledge and control.” Similarly, Victoria said her menstrual tracker app has helped her navigating the incredibly complicated and confusing world of fertile windows and ovulation dates.

But femtech is not without problems. Women said that despite their usefulness, these apps also encouraged users to view periods as a problem, something that only brings bloating, acne and mood swings. The constant focus they demand on subtle changes in one’s own body pathologizes being a woman. Several pointed out that men do not have to be subjected to the same type of physical surveillance. For all the reassurance they offer, they also exert pressure. Sophie noted that these different gauges “reinforce the idea that your body and your health are your responsibility,” which can sometimes seem like it’s “your fault if things don’t go according to plan.”

There are also major ethical and regulatory questions about how personal health information is collected, stored and shared, particularly in the context of women’s increasingly politicized, strained and risky healthcare. One woman said she was generally uncomfortable with the possibility that her tracking app was using her period data “to trick me into doing her evil bids.”

These concerns are well founded. From 2016 to 2019, the company behind Flo shared its users’ intimate health data with companies like Facebook and Google. In January 2021, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Flo, saying it had reason to believe they misled their users about their data practices and “didn’t take any action to limit what these companies do with.” could do to the information of the users”. The agency said Flo has allowed third-party companies to use personal health data “extensively, including for advertising purposes.”

The buying, selling, and leaking of personal health data is not new or specific to women’s health. In 2020, Vastaamo — a healthcare organization that operated the largest network of private mental health providers in Finland — suffered a catastrophic data breach. Hackers then blackmailed at least 25,000 patients into paying a ransom in exchange for a promise of confidentiality. In 2016, 650,000 American medical records were offered for sale on the dark web. And a 2022 Mozilla report found that mental health apps had a poor record of data protection and user privacy.

These privacy and personal health data protection issues are particularly tense in the wake of the overturning of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft Opinion Roe v. calf. People on-line implored women to delete their health apps and turn off their phones’ location services when seeking reproductive health care. A Twitter user called, “For your safety… Do not discuss illegal schemes on social media. Delete your period tracker apps. Don’t write anything down.”

Given the vigilance and violent direct action of those opposed to abortion, these warnings were widely shared and met with broad support. Just this week, VICE reported that a location data company is selling information about people’s visits to clinics that offer abortions, including Planned Parenthood facilities. The company has since removed the ability to purchase this data from its services.

These companies that handle this type of information go to great lengths to assure their customers that their data is safe. On Flo’s website it says “Your data. Protected” next to the line: “You are entrusting us with your intimate personal data and we aim to be 100% transparent about our data security and usage practices.” Clue, which is based in Germany and is therefore subject to stricter EU laws, claims also, “to fully accept the great responsibility that goes with the protection of your sensitive data” and “is committed to achieving the highest data protection and security standards”. On twitter They assured their users that any data they track on the app about pregnancy or abortion is “private and safe.”

In a comment to the Daily Dot, they said: “We have received messages from users who are concerned about how their data could be used by US courts if Roe v. calf has tipped over. We fully understand this concern and want to reassure you that your health data, particularly any data you track in Clue about pregnancy, miscarriage or abortion, is kept private and secure.”

While these concerns are there, femtech’s success points to a larger societal problem. The move to apps makes sense in a world where traditional women’s health care is flawed. American women are “sicker, more stressed, and die younger” compared to women in other high-income countries. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate among wealthy nations, and black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women. Women are increasingly being pressured to make “good choices” about their health and fertility, despite the fact that neither medicine nor society caters to female experiences. Obviously, these apps serve a currently unmet need.

For many people using these apps, the benefits may outweigh the risks. After all, anyone who uses social media or shops online already has a massive digital footprint. It also makes sense that women would want agency and control at a time when their physical autonomy is being restricted. But the risks are still serious, and they are not being applied evenly. Women in states that ban abortion in almost all cases face the potential for serious legal problems using it to document pregnancy or abortion. For more marginalized people and those subject to increased government surveillance, such as transgender people, women of color and undocumented migrants, the potential costs could also be high.

But even relatively privileged and secure women might want to reconsider. While the failures of mainstream women’s health and reproductive care are significant, femtech and its associated privacy risks create as many problems as they solve. Instead, women should think carefully before entrusting the most intimate details of their bodies to organizations that have a proven track record of monetizing their personal information. As Evan Greer, director of digital rights advocacy nonprofit Fight for the Future, told the Daily Dot, “Surveillance-driven profit models at big tech companies result in massive data collection that creates the perfect infrastructure for oppression.”


Read more about the Daily Dot’s technical and political coverage

https://www.dailydot.com/debug/femtech-data-privacy-roe-wade/ Privacy Concerns of FemTech Apps in the wake of Roe v. Wade News

Jaclyn Diaz

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