Period tracking apps store a lot of data about a person, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle

When Lisa Vallejos’ 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son died on the morning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade woke up, she called them into the living room.

There they hold family reunions for serious discussions.

“I sat her down and said, here’s what just happened and here’s what I need from you to really make sure I can protect you,” Vallejos said.

For Vallejos and other parents, this includes not only communicating about sex and unwanted pregnancies, but also protecting personal information online by ditching apps like period trackers that people use to track monthly cycles and fertility windows.

Though Vallejos lives in Denver, a state that protects abortion rights with bans in other states, she says pregnancy now comes with a much higher burden. People across the country have worried about what these apps might reveal about them and whether missed periods will be tracked and the data sold to private companies or the government. Experts say deleting the apps doesn’t really mean a person is protecting their data, but it has still made people reconsider what information they provide online.

“We talked about how (how) the internet is never private and we use private browsers like Duck, Duck, Go to provide an element of security and protection,” Vallejos said of the conversation with her kids. “But the Roe v Wade ruling really alarmed me in that regard because where we are headed as a country I really wouldn’t be surprised if there was something like a ‘protection of the unborn’ department, whose entire Task is to find people who may be seeking abortion treatment.

Her daughter Eden said period tracking apps now feel particularly “invasive.” Both Eden and her mother had used phone apps to track their periods.

The apps, Vallejos said, also pose a higher risk for people who don’t have regular periods. Vallejos, who describes herself as Latin, is even more concerned about the disproportionate impact this type of targeting could have on marginalized communities like people of color and LGBTQ. Eden identifies as bisexual and her mother as a critical polyamist. So Vallejos told her daughter to stick to pen and paper.

That’s what Englewood resident Shannon Steele recommended to people, too. She’s seen debates about which apps are safer, including those in Europe, and which ones promise to keep data safe. But for Steele, that’s not enough.

“Women have to be very diligent now,” Steele said. “And let’s face it, everything ends up being hacked one way or another. … No app is safe. I don’t care how good it is, someone will have access.”

Steele acknowledges that it’s not possible to be completely anonymous online, but she worries about how much and what type of information period apps store.

Planned Parenthood has its own period-tracking app that allows users to be anonymous when submitting data, but Steele said she’s wary of even doing so, knowing that even the right to privacy is at risk.

So should everyone rush to delete their period tracking apps? It’s not necessarily that simple, said Kelly Martin, marketing professor and privacy expert at Colorado State University.

There has been much discussion on social media about deleting these apps, and some posts have even shared what Martin calls “alarmist perspectives.” But deleting the apps is just a band-aid, she said, especially for people who have already used the apps and whose data has already been saved. Some apps store data in the cloud and may have already shared it.

“If it’s an app that limits data storage to your phone, deleting the app can be effective, but there are very few that are actually set up that way,” Martin said.

Apps like Europe-based Clue and Stardust have told users they would protect their data, and many people have downloaded those apps instead.

“I think it’s always great when you try to do your homework and do your due diligence. But to be fair, for the average consumer, this stuff is really hard to figure out. Just like looking through a company’s privacy policy. Sometimes they’re obviously very difficult to navigate,” Martin said.

She recommends using Consumer Reports Digital Lab, which evaluates various privacy practices.

Concerns about companies or other entities profiling someone online with their information are valid, Martin said. But the apps are only part of the bigger picture. Online searches, shopping habits, text messages sent, and news articles clicked allow companies to build a detailed profile of an individual and determine if they may be pregnant. In fact, search history, emails, and text messages have been used to sue people in other states for stillbirth or miscarriage. Cell phone GPS data could also be used in the future when states ban travel for abortions.

Martin said that with abortion restrictions nationwide, it’s more important than ever for women to track their cycles and overall health, but “old-school strategies” may be the way to go.

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