Fertility and cycle tracking apps are widely used and can be useful tools that help people monitor their health. But reports regularly show that, like other health apps, they fall short when it comes to protecting user privacy. That shortfall is particularly concerning for users in the US after a leaked Supreme Court opinion indicated that the court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade — eliminating the right to an abortion in the United States and allowing states to criminalize the safe and lifesaving medical procedure.
Information stored in cycle-tracking apps isn’t covered by the medical privacy law HIPAA, so companies have broad leeway with how they use it — and who they share it with. They often share information with data brokers, advertisers, and other third parties that are difficult to track. One app, Flo, was cited by the Federal Trade Commission for sharing data with Facebook even after it promised users it kept data private.
To date, data from things like cycle tracking apps doesn’t appear to have been used to prosecute pregnant people in the US, but data sucked up by other internet and app use has already been used for that exact purpose.
“The fact that it’s possible is a problem that we shouldn’t ignore,” says Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow with the Ford Foundation’s gender, racial, and ethnic justice team who wrote a 2020 paper on digital surveillance and abortion.