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Should you worry about data from your period-tracking app being used against you?

Hannah Norman and Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

A 2019 study published in the BMJ found that 79% of health apps available through the Google Play store regularly shared user data and were “far from transparent.”

When it comes to marketing, a pregnant person’s data is particularly of high value and can be hard to hide from the barrage of cookies and bots. Some period-tracking apps, which often ask for health information besides menstrual cycle details, take part in the broader internet data economy, too.

“The data can be sold to third parties, such as big tech companies; or to insurance companies, where it could then be used to make targeting decisions, such as whether to sell you a life insurance policy, or how much your premium should be,” said Giulia De Togni, a health and artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Flo Health, headquartered in London, settled with the Federal Trade Commission last year over allegations that the company, after promises of privacy, shared health data of users using its fertility-tracking app with outside data analytics companies, including Facebook and Google.

In 2019, Ovia Health drew criticism for sharing data — though de-identified and aggregated — with employers, who could purchase the period- and pregnancy-tracking app as a health benefit for their workers. People using the employer-sponsored version must currently opt in for this kind of data-sharing.

Ovia’s roughly 10,000-word privacy policy details how the company may share or sell de-identified health data and uses tracking technologies for advertisements and analytics on its free, direct-to-consumer version.

 

For European residents, companies must comply with the stricter General Data Protection Regulation, which gives ownership of data to the consumer and requires consent before gathering and processing personal data. Consumers also have the right to have their online data erased.

Companies have the option of extending those rights to people living in the U.S. via their privacy policies and terms of services. If they do so, the FTC can then hold the companies accountable for those commitments, said Deven McGraw, Invitae’s head of data stewardship and the former deputy director for health information privacy at the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.

The period-tracking app Cycles, which is owned by Swedish company Perigee, falls into this category. The company promises its users that it does not do any advertising or selling of data to third parties. Instead, it makes money solely through subscriptions, spokesperson Raneal Engineer said.

Concerned customers have been reaching out to another health app, Clue, developed by a company based in Berlin. “We completely understand this anxiety, and we want to reassure you that your health data, particularly any data you track in Clue about pregnancies, pregnancy loss or abortion, is kept private and safe,” Clue co-CEO Carrie Walter said in an emailed statement.

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©2022 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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