The post-Roe data privacy nightmare is way bigger than period tracking apps

As the Supreme Court’s draft decision overturns Roe v. calf leaked, Influencers, activists and privacy advocates have urged users to delete period tracking apps from their devices and remove their information from related services. With abortion now banned in several states, data from such apps could be used in criminal investigations against abortion seekers, and a missed period — or even an undeclared one — could be used as evidence of a crime.

These services, like many “wellness” apps, aren’t bound by HIPPA, and many have long histories of shady practices that have resulted in fines and regulatory scrutiny. The distrust towards them is justified. However, calls to delete period tracking or fertility apps obscure what privacy experts say is a much bigger problem.

“Period tracking apps are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to our privacy,” says Lia Holland, campaign and communications director for Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group. While submitting data to a cycle-tracking app could result in it being “outed off your phone,” they said, there are numerous other ways actionable data could find its way to law enforcement. “This trip […] could just as easily happen because a game you installed is tracking your location to a Planned Parenthood clinic.

India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offered similar words of warning about everyday and seemingly benign online activity. “Search history, browsing history, communication content, social media, financial transactions [..] All of these things are not necessarily related to period trackers, but could be of interest to law enforcement.”

Again, this is not an abstract problem: before the constitutional right to abortion was overturned, there were cases of pregnant women having their search history and text messages used against them after they had terminated their pregnancy.

In a much-cited case, a Mississippi woman who had a stillbirth at home was charged with murder for searching online for abortion pills. (The charges were eventually dropped.) In another case, an Indiana woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fetus after prosecutors cited her text messages as evidence that her miscarriage was a self-induced abortion. “Prosecutors argued that she was taking pro-abortion drugs purchased online, which is illegal in the United States, but police were unable to find any evidence that the drugs were purchased other than text messages discussing it,” it said The cut. Her conviction was eventually overturned, but only after she served three years in prison.

There are other, more insidious ways of stalking people who want abortions online. A recent study by Discover and The markup found that Facebook’s advertising tools – which siphon data from much of the internet, including some hospitals – were used by anti-abortion groups to keep tabs on people seeking abortion services, despite Meta’s rules against collecting such data. The data collected by the groups was also shared with separate anti-abortion marketing firms, which could allow them to target ads to “abortion-conscious women,” according to the report. Experts who spoke Discover noted that the same data could easily be shared with law enforcement agencies.

Just visiting a physical location could be enough to put someone in danger. Data brokers are already tracking and selling location data related to visits to abortion clinics. Last month, motherboard reported that a data broker, SafeGraph, sold a week’s location data for Planned Parenthood and other clinic sites, which included “where groups of people who attended the sites came from, how long they stayed there, and where they went afterward.” for only $160. The source of these records showing visits to reproductive health clinics? “Ordinary apps installed on people’s phones.”

After the report, SafeGraph said it would stop selling datasets related to family planning center locations. That doesn’t mean the apps on your phone stop tracking where you go, though. And SafeGraph is just one of many companies in the shadowy and largely unregulated multi-billion dollar data brokerage industry.

“Most people don’t realize that the apps on their phone do this,” says Holland. “And actually, a lot of the developers who are making these apps — because they’re using these very easy-to-use pre-set tools that hide this black-box monitoring — don’t even know that their own apps are putting abortion patients at risk.”

Concerns about this type of comprehensive location tracking led lawmakers to urge Google to change its data collection practices to protect people who use reproductive health care. They cited the now common practice of geofence warrants, which are “orders demanding data on anyone who was in the vicinity of a specific location at any given time”. Last month they warned that if roe “It is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will get statutory warrants to hunt down, prosecute and jail women for critical reproductive health care.” Despite the urgency of data collection practices for tech companies — and the new legal obligations they may have to share that data with law enforcement — the industry’s biggest companies have so far remained silent.

So while concerns about period tracking apps are valid, they’re just a small part of a much larger problem. And simply deleting the services from your phone is not enough to ensure that your personal information cannot be used against you. But while users are greatly outpaced by a vast and largely unregulated industry, they are not entirely helpless.

Holland and McKinney highlighted the importance of protecting your private messages and browsing history through encrypted privacy-protected messaging apps and browsers. When it comes to menstrual tracking apps, Holland recommends looking for apps that only store data locally and not in the cloud. And if you’re visiting a place where you don’t want your phone tracking you, the safest thing to do is just leave your phone at home, says McKinney. “Your phone tracks you, so leave it at home if you don’t want it to know where you’re going.”

Ultimately, however, both Holland and McKinney agree that the responsibility for privacy should not lie with the individual. Legislators need to enact privacy laws that limit what kind of data apps can collect. “Right now, there aren’t many limitations on what companies can do with people’s data,” says McKinney. “We really need legislation to fix a lot of things on the backend, and not like this [I] must do research to determine what are the best privacy practices to employ before dealing with a particularly stressful situation in my life.”

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