Privacy issues to watch as smart tech usage increases around the world
Written by Fiona Sleigh, IMHER Student Research Assistant
Edited by Vy Nguyen, IMHER Student Research Assistant
For the time being, the benefits of mobile period tracker apps are often out of reach for many lower-income menstruators, especially given substantially lower usage rates of smartphones by women in many countries in the Global South (see this report on the mobile gender gap).
Even so, menstrual tracking app technology available on smartphone and smart-watch apps tends to be of interest to many who do menstrual hygiene education, with an eye cast to the many possibilities for education, self-care, and body positivity contained within some of them. Moreover, the idea of creating accessible, locally-relevant period apps seems to be an aspiration for more than a few working on global MHM issues.
A key challenge is that the profitability in apps that are free to users tends to reside in the use of targeted advertising and/or in the selling of user data. Put another way, the tech truism of “your free software is never free; if you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product” (Vox) most likely usually applies in this context.
As such, this recent article in The Lily may be of interest, with its focus on the privacy challenges associated with some period-tracking apps (it focuses primarily on the Flo app; however, many other articles (see examples below) detail privacy issues with a variety of different period-tracker apps.
A few key points in The Lily piece are:
- Many popular period-tracking apps have shared users’ data with advertisers, despite having privacy policies that explicitly promise not to share this private information.
- The data shared to date has sometimes included information about users’ menstruation patterns, fertility, and pregnancies.
- Actions have been brought against some of these companies; however, many users who had their data shared view the penalties as inadequate.
- Some menstruators have been reconsidering their dependence on period-tracking apps in light of these privacy breaches.
For those promoting the use of smartphone-based menstrual trackers, apps that store user information locally (i.e., on a user’s phone, instead of in the cloud) can be a way to avoid many of these issues.
For example, Planned Parenthood’s Spot On app may be worth considering on that basis (for more on Planned Parenthood’s use of locally stored data, see this 2019 Tom’s Guide article). While its nonprofit status doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the organization would never try to profit from the app, the inevitable media backlash for doing so by a high-profile organization branded on trust may help to provide users with some degree of confidence that it is unlikely to radically alter its privacy policies. The app is also notable for its explicitly gender-inclusive, trans and non-binary-friendly approach, and it is a potential model for future apps in that regard.
Designed largely to appeal to a U.S. audience, the Spot On app would need to be assessed for cultural relevance elsewhere. Regardless, the benefits to users of locally-stored user data – and perhaps also apps managed by organizations with social-good reputations to protect – may be worth considering.
Those doing menstrual education in lower-income contexts where smartphone and smart-watch usage still tends to be rare will likely continue to instruct menstruators in pencil-and-paper-based menstrual tracking. Additionally, some organizations provide girls with manual period trackers (see, for example, this innovative plastic SmartCycle® period tracker by Be Girl.)
Individuals and MHM organizations considering using period-tracking apps should be aware of the potential financial incentives to both app creators (i.e., the potential sale of advertising and user data) and to menstrual product producers (i.e., the ability to target ads to users on some apps, and the potential to buy relatively finely-grained information about individuals in some cases in order to do that). The benefits of the development and promotion of apps that use locally-stored, rather than cloud-based, user data should also be considered.
It is important to note, however, that such concerns may not be faced by women in all countries. Online and app-related privacy regulations tend to vary considerably by country; moreover, the U.S. (where some of the menstrual tracker privacy challenges to date have been centered), guarantees much less online privacy to Americans online than do European countries, and as compared to many other countries in the world. On the other hand, there may be greater investment in smart tech where regulations allow for greater corporate profitability through the commercialization of user data, so the issue of data privacy protection can be a complicated one.
As such, not all users of tracking apps may face the same degree of privacy risk. However, given that smartphone usage has been rapidly increasing around the world, the state of political protections for online and app-based privacy in each country may be important information for those in MHM to track, along with other legislative priorities more clearly tied to menstrual health and hygiene work.
For more, see also…
Period-Tracking Apps Also Track You, Researchers Find (Toms Guide, June 2019)
What Your Period Tracker App Knows About You (Consumer Reports, Jan 2020)
Is Your Pregnancy App Sharing Your Intimate Data With Your Boss? (Center for Genetics and Society, April 2019)
Flo Settles FTC Charges of Misleading Users on Privacy (New York Times; Jan 2021)