Apps wrangle our privacy away from us and put us at risk every day. Period app privacy violations come as no surprise.
The Internet plays a big role in connecting us to reproductive health services, from period tracking apps to searching for abortion providers. We would hope what we search for on google or download is going to stay in the privacy of our own phone. Not so. Our private information is being harvested, hoarded and sold to the highest bidder. It’s ending up in the hands of individual asshole abusers. And soon, potentially, Supreme Court psychos.
As our basic right to privacy was called in to question in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court leak, millions of users of apps like period trackers wondered who’s hands their most intimate info would end up in – and whether it could land them in jail.
The Flo period tracking app, for example, has been installed more than 167 million times and has more than 38 million monthly active users according to their website. The app encouraged women to record their most intimate sexual and reproductive information, asking users to provide info from full name and contact details to how often they masturbate and whether they are sexually active during their period. Flo claimed to be hoarding this info for #empowerment reasons: to allow users to “take full control of [their] health,” and gave repeated assurances that the data would remain confidential and would not be disclosed to third parties. But, of course, it was.
According to an FTC investigation, Flo “shared sensitive health data from millions of users of its Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker app with marketing and analytics firms, including Facebook and Google.”
This wasn’t a case – as creepy tech co’s often try to suggest – of lazy, digitally-illiterate consumers flinging their personal data into the void. Flo Health’s privacy policies assured over and again that they would not share users’ intimate health data with anyone. Their website boasted that privacy is “of utmost importance” and that “Flo provides a secure platform for millions of women globally.” All while knowingly peddling intimate, private data to Facebook and Google.
This brokering of private data goes from a gross violation to downright dangerous when our reproductive activities become criminalized. In the not unlikely scenario that Roe is overturned, our data trails could be treated as evidence to prove intent to commit an illegal act.
It’s already happening in states that have been rolling back privacy rights for years:
In 2015 activists used surveillance technology to target anti-abortion ads at women visiting abortion clinics. In 2017 an online search about a medication used in terminated pregnancies was used to charge one woman with second-degree murder. That’s WITH Roe largely in-place. It was reported only last week in Vice that a location data firm is selling information related to visits to clinics that provide abortions including Planned Parenthood facilities, showing “where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed there, and where they then went afterwards,” according to sets of the data purchased by Motherboard.
We’ve seen too often apps that market themselves as empowering or as making life easier for a typically underserved group of people – then creating vulnerabilities and monetizing them.
Take Grindr: Precise user location data was collected using MoPub (once owned by Twitter) and put on sale through its partner UberMedia (now UM) since at least 2017. Catholic publication The Pillar used this information to dox and out a senior church official. There are obviously also fears that countries with anti-gay laws can use freely available info from Grindr to surveil and arrest its already vulnerable users. We’ve tried to hold them accountable before – when their app’s dangerous features were weaponized to stalk and abuse our client Matthew Herrick. But they were deemed to be protected by the CDA 230 – a law that protect wildly wealthy and powerful tech companies from responsibility for their dangerous products and practices.
We need to be able to hold apps accountable for putting products into the stream of commerce that actively place people in danger. We need laws that ban abusive harvesting and sales of data. And we need to crack-down on companies that hoard more data than needed to provide their services.
For years, institutions funded and controlled by misogynists – but dressed-up as democratizing forces – have been running roughshod over our right to privacy. This includes the Supreme Court and it includes tech companies. It needs to stop.