Why Delete Period Tracking App? Roe v. Wade Ruling Sparks Panic Over Data

Some social media users are urging women to delete apps they may be using to track their periods following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn two landmark abortion rights rulings.

The Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization means that the right to an abortion no longer has constitutional protection and that state governments can introduce laws banning the procedure entirely or severely restricting access to it.

Several states already have so-called trigger laws that will now take effect following the overturning of 1973's Roe v. Wade and 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey that will effectively outlaw most abortions.

The ruling has led to renewed calls to delete period tracking apps such as Flo out of concern that the personal health data contained in the apps could potentially be subpoenaed by state authorities in order to prove pregnancy and loss of pregnancy in possible criminal cases.

"Delete your period tracking apps today," tweeted author Jessica Khoury on Friday, while many other social media users made the same point following the publication of the Court's opinion.

"Friends: This is not paranoia. States are already able to access your data on your apps. If you travel while you've missed a period, you WILL be prosecuted for seeking an abortion. DELETE YOUR APPS RIGHT NOW," wrote Twitter user Deke Moulton.

Newsweek previously reported last month about similar concerns expressed by progressive attorney and activist Elizabeth C. McLaughlin. At that time, the Court had not issued its opinion but a leaked draft had been published by Politico on May 2. The final version of the opinion was fundamentally the same.

"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," McLaughlin tweeted at the time.

"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 went on.

For example, if a state were to pass a law making it illegal for a woman to procure an abortion and she did so anyway, the information on the period tracking app could be used to prove pregnancy and subsequent loss of pregnancy.

It is not yet clear whether states will pass laws that would see women criminally charged for having an abortion but critics say legislation now being considered in Louisiana would criminalize women who have abortions and could see them prosecuted for homicide.

Potential prosecutions of women could rely on period tracking technology.

Unlike doctors, the apps are not bound by patient privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the information on the apps has sometimes been sold to third parties such as Facebook and Google.

Flo, the most popular period tracking app, shared users' information with Facebook from 2016 to 2019 but has since ceased to do so, while the company now says it does not share data with third parties.

Women urged to delete period tracking apps
In the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned, women have been urged to delete period tracking apps over data privacy fears. Getty

How Period Tracking Apps Have Responded to Supreme Court Ruling

Flo issued a statement following the Dobbs decision saying the app would soon launch an "Anonymous Mode" that "removes your personal identity from your Flo account, so that no one can identify you."

Nonetheless, the major concern among some activists is that state investigators could issue subpoenas for that data, imposing a legal obligation on companies that they may not be able to successfully fight in court.

Clue, a period tracking app based in Europe, issued a statement suggesting that data would be more secure with them.

"Given the increasing criminalization of abortion in the U.S., we understand that many of our American users are worried that their tracked data could be used against them by US prosecutors. It is important to understand that European law protects our community's sensitive health data," Clue said.

However, it remains to be seen if this would provide adequate protection from U.S. subpoenas. Flo is headquartered in London, U.K.

Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told NPR on Friday that data stored in the cloud can be subject to subpoena, but if it is stored on a person's device then a search warrant is required.

He said a warrant is a "much higher legal bar" than a subpoena, so users may wish to be conscious of where their data is stored.

Other data from women's phones and devices could also be used to build a case, such as location tracking, Google searches and chat histories.

This information could be used to prove a woman had visited an abortion clinic or formed an intention to do so.

Abortion is illegal or soon to be illegal in at least 16 states but the exact contours of state-level laws could take months to become clear. The decision to delete a period tracking app is a personal one but could become more urgent depending on how state governments choose to act on the Supreme Court's decision.

Abortion Protesters Hold Signs in Portland, Oregon
People hold up signs as they gather to protest the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022 in Portland, Oregon. Women have been urged to delete period tracking apps. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images