The article has been automatically translated into English by Google Translate from Russian and has not been edited.

Very personal data: why menstrual tracking apps are dangerous


Source: DW

What are the risks for smartphone users who enter data about their menstrual cycle and pregnancy into the application? DW spoke with Russian and international experts on personal data protection.

Photo: Shutterstock

The term “femtech” (from English female technology) is used to refer to startups and technologies aimed at women. The term appeared in 2016 - it is believed that it was invented by the Danish entrepreneur Ida Tin, who lives in Berlin, who founded the Clue app, which helps women track menstrual cycles and overall health. There are dozens of such applications at the moment.

They collect information about the beginning of menstruation, about a woman's plans to become pregnant, about sexual activity and diet. Millions of users share this information with programs, without much thought about who gets access to it. Data protection experts around the world have warned of the potential misuse of such sensitive information. What is the danger of such applications?

Sex, food and alcohol: why apps need this information

Amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the popularity of telemedicine technologies and health apps has grown significantly. Applications for monitoring the menstrual cycle have also become in great demand, with which you can predict the onset of the next menstruation, calculate the approximate day of ovulation and the window of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Keeping track of your cycle is useful, gynecologists confirm, and modern technology makes this process easier. But is the data that users submit about themselves so protected?

In international law, all personal information about a person's health status is considered “sensitive”. Any information that reveals religious, political and sexual preferences falls into this category, explains Eva Blum-Dumont, a researcher at the British non-profit organization Privacy International. According to her, the creators of applications must be especially careful with such information.

“But in reality it’s not, and that’s where the problem lies with trackers that help keep track of women’s health,” explains Blum-Dumont.

On the subject: 7 symptoms during your period that should alert you

A 2019 study by Privacy International found that some apps automatically share information that users submit about themselves with Facebook and their other partners. At the same time, users often do not even know about it.

“We were amazed at the scale of the data the application collects,” says the researcher. - In addition to information about the beginning and end of menstruation, women are asked to indicate how often they have sex, whether they drink alcohol, whether they go to yoga. It is normal to want to know why programs need this data and what it affects. But the applications are silent about this. ”

Terms of use agreements for mobile apps are often very opaque.

“We needed the help of experienced lawyers to understand what the user agreements mean, which are automatically signed by women who download such applications on their smartphones,” says Blum-Dumont.

Removing your data from apps is also not easy. For example, in order for the Clue program to delete all the information it has about the user's health, you need to write a special request and wait about a month.

“It's good when a woman follows her menstrual cycle. But is it right to trust this task to an algorithm? How can you guarantee the user that the data he shares with the program is safe? " - says Russian human rights activist Alena Popova.

She notes that often women are not even aware that by signing data transfer agreements, they agree that applications store this information for decades. In Europe, smartphone apps are subject to the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but in Russia users of such programs are less protected.

Who is interested in data on a woman's menstrual cycle?

Who is interested in data related to a woman's menstrual cycle? One of the most interested parties is marketers. Indeed, depending on the day of the menstrual cycle, not only a woman's mood and emotions change, but also her interest in various consumer goods and services.

“There have been several studies like this in marketing. For example, if a woman has PMS, then she will most likely prefer to buy some household goods, something cozy. And at the beginning of the cycle, when the level of estrogen rises in the body, a woman is more likely to be interested in advertising for erotic lingerie. And that's what the marketing strategy is based on, ”explains DW Esther Crabbendam of the Dutch human rights non-profit organization Bits of Freedom.

According to the expert, the most valuable information for marketers is the information that a woman is about to have a child or has become pregnant - because this significantly changes her consumer habits.

Esther Crabbendam cites the example of the American company Glow, which, in addition to four “female” applications, also offers clinics to its users where eggs can be frozen and in vitro fertilized (IVF) done.

“In fact, the company uses the data that women enter into their applications to sell them their products later,” the expert is sure.

Information about a woman's menstrual cycle opens up a large space for manipulation, because depending on the cycle, the hormonal background fluctuates, affecting the psychophysiological characteristics, explains Alena Popova.

“The question is how far neuromarketing can go (a set of methods that study customer behavior and the interaction of processes in the brain on attitudes towards marketing and advertising. - Ed.), lies in the ethical plane, ”the expert believes.

So far, she says, she has not heard of marketing companies in Russia using data on a woman's menstrual cycle for their own purposes. But the expert does not rule out that this may happen in the future.

On the subject: How menstrual bowls work: 5 true reviews

Opponents of abortion and cycle tracking apps

Not only marketers, but also opponents of abortion may be interested in accessing data on women's health. In 2019, The Guardian newspaper published an investigation into The Femm, which has been used by women in the United States, Europe, Africa and Latin America for five years. According to the publication, the application is sponsored by the foundation of the conservative American businessman Sean Filer. He has publicly supported Catholic organizations that advocate the prohibition of oral contraception and abortion.

In some of its texts, The Femm app questions the use of hormonal contraception. In return, users are encouraged to study their cycle to avoid pregnancy. Some of the app-consulting physicians, found to be unlicensed, are also urging women to give up contraceptives and abortions.

The data on the menstrual cycle are also of interest to the authorities. For example, the Department of Health of the American state of Missouri confirmed that they tracked data on the menstrual cycle of women who went to the only clinic in the state where abortion is allowed.

“We are concerned that in the future, in countries where abortion is illegal and punishable, the government will want access to apps to track menstruation,” said Joana Varon, a Brazilian researcher, lawyer, founder and head of the international advocacy project Coding Rights. In Brazil, a woman faces up to three years in prison for an illegal abortion.

“My advice is to think again what your purpose is when using these apps. Is it worth it to indicate directly all-all data about yourself. Its main function - to predict the beginning of menstruation - the tracker will perform without information about how much you drank and when you last masturbated, ”concluded Eva Blum-Dumont.

The material is published for educational purposes and is not a medical recommendation. ForumDaily Woman is not responsible for the consequences of self-medication and may not share the views of the author or expert.

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