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Digital period tracking's dark future

Erin Brodwin
Aug 29, 2022
Reproduced from Rock Health; Chart: Axios Visuals

Almost one-third of menstruating respondents used at least one digital tool to track their periods and/or fertility, Rock Health found in a new report on digital period tracking.

Why it matters: The personal right to privacy was embedded in Roe v. Wade, and its reversal is already threatening those protections — including when it comes to the use of digital products that track fertility and ovulation, the Rock Health analysts note.

Case in point: In Nebraska, where abortions are illegal after 20 weeks of gestation, law enforcement this month subpoenaed and accessed Facebook messages between a woman and her 17-year-old daughter.

  • Officials used the messages as evidence to charge the mother with two felonies that carry a sentence of up to two years in prison.

What's happening: Assessing results from a 2021 survey, Rock Health is analyzing its latest data to paint a picture of digital fertility tracking behaviors before the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June.

By the numbers: Of the Rock Health respondents who reported using a digital period tracking tool, nearly 60% said they used a mobile app.

  • Another third said they used a wearable.
  • And roughly a quarter reported using a digital journal.

How it works: Period tracking apps and wearables contain data that could suggest someone is pregnant.

  • Combine that digital footprint with data such as location information or medical claims, and an outside observer might be able to conclude whether someone is seeking abortion care.

Threat level: When law enforcement authorities demand personal data belonging to those suspected of getting an abortion, tech firms will likely hand it over, our colleagues Ina Fried and Margaret Harding McGill write.

  • Through warrants and subpoenas, law enforcement officials can access location data, content, usernames and more.
  • They can now get that same data in connection with abortion investigations in states that have criminalized it, India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Ina and Margaret in June.

What they're saying: People who use period or other health tracking apps face a confusing dilemma, Rock Health analysts say.

  • "While digital health tools might help consumers prevent an unwanted pregnancy, if challenges arise and abortion care is sought, data generated from these tools may be used against them."

State of play: Several reproductive health startups may already be seeing their users respond to the Dobbs decision, Rock Health's researchers say.

  • Clue, a Berlin-based period tracking app, saw a 2,200% jump in app downloads after the company announced its data was protected under European data privacy laws and could not be subpoenaed in the U.S.
  • And Flo, a London-based period tracker, created a setting called "anonymous mode," which lets users opt out of disclosing personally identifiable information.

What's next: Rock Health's researchers say we could see digital period tracking behaviors plummet in states with limited abortion access.

  • That could cut impacted communities' representation (including research participation) in digital health, which could in turn deepen existing inequities in the space, they write.
  • “Digital health companies must consider how reproductive oppression has operated in this country for Black women, immigrant women, poor women and other birthing people," Rhia Ventures CEO Erika Seth Davies tells Rock Health.
  • "There are ways in which this moment will worsen the tendency to criminalize certain groups as opposed to others," Seth Davies adds.
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