What To Know About Period Trackers and the Information They Share
Whether you're trying to conceive, prefer a natural form of birth control, or have been dealing with wonky periods that simply do not come like clockwork, there are copious reasons you might track your cycle. And there are plenty of apps for that—many of which have been around since basically the inception of smart devices. Many have purported to make this process effortless for anyone who's interested in keeping tabs on their cycle. But in light of the news of the leaked draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that signals the majority of the Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, creators on TikTok have pointed out that the data these trackers collect could potentially be used against app users.
Michela Menting, Digital Security Research Director at global technology intelligence firm, ABI Research, says period trackers and other apps, like fertility and pregnancy trackers, are "absolutely going to compromise" users' privacy. "Period tracker apps may seem innocuous today, but they will be one of the tools leveraged to surveille and report on [users] if Roe v. Wade is overturned," she points out.
Here, Menting and other experts share the basics on period trackers, how to practice "digital defense" to guard your privacy, and why it may be best to take matters into your own hands.
What You Need To Know About Period Trackers
From keeping track of the kids' dentist appointments to setting reminders that you're overdue for a catch-up with your bestie, the tiny computer in your pocket is the main way we stay on top of so many day-to-day details in our lives. It stands to reason that anyone who gets a period might use it to stay on top of that aspect of their life.
Enter period tracking apps, which can be easily downloaded and used on any smart device—often for free, if you don't mind ads and limited features. There are apps geared to teens, others that aim to make it easy to share cycle data with a partner, even one meant for athletes. What all of them have in common: They make it possible for you to input when you get your period, then keep you posted on when to expect it the next time around. But that's far from the only data you may be sharing with the app—intentionally or not.
"The apps gather extensive demographic data, as well as sensitive information including users' sexual positions and practices, moods and feelings, whether they practice protected sex, and indicators such as the physical characteristics of menstrual flow or the quality of cervical mucus," notes Michele Gilman, Venable professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the Columbia Journal of Law and Gender article "Periods for Profit and the Rise of Menstrual Surveillance."
The Pros and Cons of Using a Period Tracker
Sure, there are pros to having that info recorded and on hand. Period tracking apps could allow you to better understand your body and predict your period, acknowledges Gilman.
But it's also crucial to be cognizant of the cons. If you're using a period tracking app to gauge when you're ovulating, Gilman warns that there have been issues with their accuracy, which could lead to trouble conceiving or, on the flipside, unintended pregnancy.
"Another major concern is that the extensive data the apps hold is not secure," she notes. "Indeed, the profit-model of many of these 'free' apps hinges on selling the extensive troves of user data to advertisers and third-party data brokers."
Turns out, your reproductive health data is more valuable than you might realize—especially if you're pregnant. The data of someone who's expecting is worth 15 times that of the average person, explains Gilman. "That's because companies are very interested in generating brand loyalty at the start of a major life change," she says.
But unsecured data could lead to a loss of personal privacy on matters relating to your fertility and potential actual physical harm that may eventually result from a loss of those rights (either from illegal abortions or the infliction of future criminal penalties), says Menting.
"Advertisers comprise not just companies, but also lobbies, activist organizations, political parties, etc., all of which can have access to information that may be potentially related to causes they are engaged in (i.e. abortion)," she says. "While there are rules regulating how that data should be used in general, there are many unscrupulous advertisers that trample privacy rights daily. Going forward, it is very possible that engaged anti-abortion groups buy such data to track patterns."
And that's not to mention various other potential troubling downstream effects. "There is a real risk that people's data fed into period tracking apps could fuel gender discrimination, such as women paying higher interest rates, being denied insurance, or facing workplace discrimination," points out Gilman.
This risk only serves to compound an existing issue for people of color. As Melissa Murray, a leading expert in family law, constitutional law, and reproductive rights and justice, professor of law at New York University School of Law, and co-host of the "Strict Scrutiny" podcast, says, "People of color are generally are hyper visible in our society for lots of reasons, and they are often the subject of intense surveillance by the state as well as private parties." And period tracking data creates another layer of inadvertent surveillance, she says.
That said, there are period tracking apps that do and will continue to guarantee the protection of a user's personal information and restrict access to the data by third parties, notes Menting. "In particular, non-U.S. based app developers (and notably those in Europe), already have strong privacy protection mechanisms in place, and will likely redouble efforts to protect such information in light of what is happening in the U.S.," she says.
Yet, even if your period tracking app data isn't being sold, there is still the danger that a U.S. court of law requires a period tracker app company to turn over data regardless, explains Menting.
How to Stay Safe While Tracking Your Cycle
Here are several steps the experts we spoke recommend taking to guard your privacy in the face of security concerns around period tracking apps.
- What happens to my data if I decide to discontinue use of the app?
- How is my data cleaned from the app's database?
2. Practice digital defense.
"We are entering a scary time that will require much higher levels of digital literacy by anyone who uses the internet for reproductive health purposes," notes Gilman. Because apps are far from the only concern and internet searches for abortion information could also pose risks in certain states, as could purchasing abortion medication online, it's important to practice digital defense, or using the internet with the security of yourself and others in mind, she says.
"It requires understanding how your data can be used against you and becoming educated in accessing the internet strategically and carefully," explains Gilman.
A couple of related resources:
- The Digital Defense Fund, which offers a guide to abortion privacy.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which recently published an article on digital security and privacy tips for those involved in abortion access.
3. Go old school and ditch the app altogether.
Weiss-Wolf strongly believes that period trackers are wholly unnecessary. "There is no information that they provide a person that a person cannot determine themselves," she says.
DIY period tracking is as simple as doing the following:
- Mark your calendar on the day you get your period. This is Day One. Count each day until your next period arrives (when you'll begin at Day One again).
- You may need to do this for three or four months to get an accurate measure of the length and regularity of your cycle. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, but normal cycles can range from 23 to 35 days in length. And of course, cycles can vary in length from month to month.
What's more, by taking matters into your own hands—and/or teaching your tween or teen how to do it themselves—you're bolstering body and menstrual literacy, which cultivates empowerment.
As Weiss-Wolf puts it, "The more we know about how our own bodies work, the better advocates we can be for ourselves, and for our bodies and for our health."