How fertility apps track and use private data


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Help WikiTribune report on fertility trackers and contraceptive apps and how they use data in light of the rise in privacy concerns sparked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal about technology companies harvesting personal information.

Gay dating app Grindr announced it would stop sharing its users’ HIV status with third parties (Axios), as it had been doing, after users announced they felt “betrayed” (New Statesman). However the company defended its practice as far from that of Cambridge Analytica, which stands accused of improperly using Facebook users’ personal data to target voters during the U.S. presidential elections, the 2015 Nigerian presidential election, and the UK referendum on leaving the European Union.

We’d like to look at how menstrual cycle and contraception apps – that pledge to bring clarity and recommendations to women about their health – use and harvest users’ data, and then what they do with that data. Apps such as Glow, Clue, Period Tracker, Natural Cycles, and Maya, rely on users telling the app personal details such as their emotions, how much sleep they’ve had, and if they’ve had unprotected sex.

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Key facts:

  • Menstrual apps ask users for personal data about their health, sexual activity, and behavior in exchange for guidance on how to conceive, how to avoid conception, and other advice related to menstruation, such as for sufferers of polycystic ovary syndrome or irregular periods.
  • Glow, originally a pregnancy app, was started by data firm HVF and accused of security and privacy vulnerabilities by product testing non-profit Consumer Reports. It said it detected that it would be easy for anyone who knew a users’ email address to access their personal details and intimate information via the app (Washington Post).
  • The Food and Drug Administration in the United States said it would exercise “discretion” on whether it would pursue privacy violations by many health apps, as they aren’t covered by federal health privacy laws.

Questions we’d like to ask:

  • Are these apps helpful?
  • What details do menstrual apps generally ask from users?
  • How do they store such data?
  • What do companies do with these personal details?
  • Are users of these apps aware of what they agree to when they download the app?
  • What do menstrual apps mean for data protection and privacy in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and beyond?

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