Could Period-Tracking Apps Be Dangerous in a Post-Roe v. Wade U.S.?

Millions of people in the U.S. and across the world rely on period-tracking apps to monitor their menstrual cycles, predict fertile windows and check their symptoms over time.

And yet, a technology that was fundamentally created to enable women to better know their bodies might be turned into an instrument to control and curb their reproductive rights, abortion-rights activists are warning.

Reproductive Surveillance Concerns

In the follow-up of the leaked draft opinion revealing that the Supreme Court is getting ready to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade over the summer, abortion-rights activists are warning people against using period-tracking apps.

These apps know an awful lot about what's going on with their users' bodies, including details about their moods, their sex lives, their libido, and even the color and consistency of vaginal discharge.

Roe v Wade Supreme Court
Activists have raised concerns over period-tracking apps being potentially used as evidence of people having an abortion. Above, abortion-rights activists demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 4, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

But period apps, unlike doctors, are not bound to patient privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal law from 1996 which requires sensitive patients' information to be kept confidential and not disclosed without the patient's knowledge and consent. The data collected by these period-tracking apps are often sold to third-party companies, like Facebook and Google.

The most famous and popular of these period-tracking apps, Flo, was found to have shared the health data of its users with marketing and analytics companies between 2016 and 2019, as reported by The New York Times, which mentions a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in January 2021.

After a settlement reached with the FTC, Flo agreed to undergo an independent review of its privacy practices and to ask for users' consent before sharing their health information with third-party companies.

Flo said that in 2019 it used Facebook Analytics tool only to ensure "the best experience" for users of the app. According to the company, "any use of these tools was for internal development only to improve our functionality and service to our users, not for advertising purposes."

The company said a privacy audit in March 2022 found that there were no gaps in Flo's privacy practices, and the company now says they do not share their data with third parties.

But activists are now concerned about something worse than having their personal data monetized. They're warning against period-tracking apps potentially sharing users' intimate details to track women seeking an abortion.

"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," progressive attorney and activist Elizabeth C. McLaughlin wrote on Twitter.

How Could These Intimate Data Be Used Against Women Seeking Abortions?

If the Supreme Court was to make its draft opinion final and a majority of the judges were to decide to overrule Roe v. Wade, abortion would go from being a constitutional right to being at the mercy of state legislation.

It is estimated that thirteen states would immediately ban abortions as a result of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and more could join them in the following months.

Only 48 hours after the draft document was leaked by Politico on Monday night, Louisiana Republican lawmakers approved a bill that, if passed by the full House of Representatives, would classify abortion as a homicide.

Such proposed legislation gives the full picture of how high the stakes are for women using period-tracking apps, whose intimate health data could potentially be shared with those wanting to prosecute them and put them in jail for life, or even sentence them to death.

McLaughlin and others fear that the health data shared on period-tracking apps could be the targets of subpoenas and court orders to prove a pregnancy and criminalize a pregnancy loss—whether that is abortion or a miscarriage.

"Prosecutors have subpoena power, and in the event that you need an abortion or you miscarry or you travel across state lines, you need to think very seriously about what is on your phone," McLaughlin wrote.

But period-tracking apps are not the only reason why people seeking abortions should be wary of their phones: locations, Google searches, and chat histories can already be used to determine whether someone is visiting an abortion clinic, or even if they're considering doing so.

There are precedents of people—including private citizens as well as police—buying data to investigate abortions and identify people who have visited Planned Parenthood clinics. This week, Vice revealed the result of an investigation that found that a location data firm was selling data revealing where people who visited a Planned Parenthood clinic came from and where they went afterward to anyone willing to spend $160.

Whether the secrets contained in people's phones could be used against women seeking a prohibited abortion in a post-Roe v. Wade's future is still uncertain—but it remains a grim possibility.

Update 05/09/22, 6:05 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to add a comment from Flo.