Why Deleting Your Period Tracker Won’t Protect Your Privacy

In May 1972, Chicago police raided an apartment building where a group called the Jane Collective performed abortions. This was a year before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade’s decision gave women the constitutional right to decide whether to give birth, and abortion was a felony in Illinois.

Seven women were arrested, including two carrying index cards with the names and addresses of patients in their purses. According to a story written by a member of the collective, “Jane’s story“The women destroyed the cards in the paddy wagon on the way to the police station, tearing them into small pieces and eating some of them. They didn’t know what the police could do with that information, so they got rid of it.

Fifty years later, the Supreme Court reversed Roe’s decision. abortions will banned or severely restricted in much of the country. But now, thanks to the digital footprints left in today’s technological age, it will be much harder to hide incriminating data about the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

When the court’s draft decision was first leaked in May, and then when the decision became official last week, people focused on those digital footprints, especially the information millions of women share about their menstrual cycles on period-tracking apps. The reflex advice was simple and direct: remove them all. Immediately.

“Remove these fertility apps now” tweeted Gina Neff is a sociologist and director of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. In an interview with Zoom, D. Neff said that the applications contain “powerful information about reproductive choice, which now poses a threat.”

These apps allow users to record the dates of their menstrual cycles and get predictions about when they ovulate and when they are most fertile. The apps can also serve as digital diaries of sexual activity, birth control methods, and fertility attempts. Some women use apps when they are trying to get pregnant, others to avoid it, and many just to find out when their next period is due.

Exhortations to get rid of them seem to have had the opposite effect. According to Data.ai, which tracks app store activity, period tracker app downloads doubled in the days following Roe’s cancellation, compared to the average weekly downloads over the previous three months.

The biggest beneficiaries were Clue and obscure astronomy-based menstrual tracker Stardust. public obligations to data protection after the decision of the Supreme Court. A spokesperson for Clue said the European-based company will not comply with requests from US law enforcement to provide user health information.

While period trackers seem like the obvious source of information about reproductive health decisions, experts say other digital information is more likely to put women at risk. Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights lawyer and fellow at the Ford Foundation, has researched the prosecution of pregnant women accused of killing a fetus or endangering their fetus. cataloging digital evidence used against them in an academic paper she published in 2020.

We have to start with the types of data that have already been used to criminalize people,” said Ms. Conti-Cook, formerly of the New York Public Defenders Office. “SMS to your sister saying ‘Swearing, I’m pregnant.’ History of searching for abortion pills or visiting websites that have information about abortion.

One of the cases d. Conti-Cook highlighted Latis Fishera Mississippi woman who was charged with second-degree murder after stillbirth at home in 2017. local report, investigators downloaded the contents of her phone, including her internet search history, and she “confessed to doing internet searches, including how to induce a miscarriage” and how to buy abortion medications such as mifepristone and misoprostol. After a significant public outcry, the case against M. Fischer was fallen.

On another occasion, in Indiana, text messages friend about taking abortion pills in late pregnancy. Purvi Patelwhich is successfully filed an appeal and reduced the 20-year sentence for fetal homicide and dependent neglect.

“These text messages, these websites visited, these Google searches are exactly the type of proof of intent that prosecutors want to fill their bag of evidence with,” Ms said. said Conti-Cook.

Investigators could also potentially use smartphone location data if the state legislate prohibiting women from traveling to areas where abortion is legal. Information about people’s movements collected through apps on their phones is regularly sold by data brokers.

When the New York Times explored using supposedly anonymous market data in 2018, he was able to identify a woman who spent an hour at a Newark Planned Parenthood Center. In May, a journalist from Vice was able to buy information from a data broker on phones that were delivered to Planned Parenthoods within a week for only $160. (After the Vice report, the data broker said he planned stop selling health care provider visit data.)

In the pastanti-abortion activists have “restricted the geofence” of Planned Parenthood by creating a digital border around them and targeting phones that are within the geofence with ads directing owners to a website designed to discourage women from terminating their pregnancies .

There are similar attempts to get the attention of people who turn to the Internet for help with abortions. “Maternity Crisis Centers” aims to be at the top of Google search results when people search for information on how to terminate a pregnancy. When someone goes to such a website, they sometimes try to collect information. about a human.

Given the many ways in which people are digitally tracked as they move, communicate, and search the Internet, a more important question may arise. how hard law enforcement will be in states with abortion bans. Those who advise against using menstrual trackers seem to fear the worst: searching for everyone who was pregnant and then stopped being pregnant.

“It is difficult to say what will happen, where, how and when, but the possibilities are quite dangerous,” she said. conti-cook said. “It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, so I try to focus on what we’ve seen it used against people.”

She added: “Google searches, websites visited, email receipts. This is what we saw.”