Are Period Apps An Invasion Of Privacy?

Half the world’s population spend an average of 6.25 years of their lives menstruating, yet it is still one of life’s mysteries. That’s why millions of have started to diarise their monthly cycles on their smartphones using period tracking apps, like Period Tracker, Glow, Clue and Kindara. The apps encourage to you input how you feel throughout the month and what your period is like – from bloating to lumpy blood flow, inhaling chocolate to feeling emotionally triggered by First Dates – to help spot patterns or abnormalities. They also predict your fertility window, making them popular among women trying – or trying to avoid – getting pregnant. On the surface, period-tracking apps sound like another excellent invention making modern life a little easier, like Citymapper or Wunderlist. But free apps need to make money and most of them do it by trading our data. So before we start divulging our most intimate bodily details, shouldn’t we question how secure these apps are? And how our data is being collected, shared, with whom – and importantly – why? I casually surveyed my friends who use period tracking apps to see if this is an issue for them. The responses sat in two camps: “It doesn’t bother me” or “It didn’t occur to me to be concerned.” Helen Morris, a PR and yoga teacher, uses the period-tracking app Clue, which tracks her energy, motivation and sleep levels in her menstrual cycle. “It’s really useful, particularly if I'm having one of those days where I feel a bit off and I don't know why,” she says. She read the data policy before signing up. “Everything we do is online and tracked anyway, so for me it's not creepy, it's just how it is,” she says. “I don't think there is any difference between my Nike app knowing how many miles I ran this month and my period app knowing my biological details. If technology like this is encouraging women to become more in tune with their bodies then that's a good thing,” she adds. Samantha Goolden, a senior merchandiser, falls into the other camp. She uses the app Period Log but didn’t read its privacy policy. “To be honest, before now I hadn't really thought about whether it would be shared or not,” she tells me. “Yes, perhaps it’s a little creepy but so far I haven't noticed any period-related marketing towards me” The rise of the internet and mobile technology has entered us into a Faustian pact with tech companies; in exchange for information about ourselves, like gender, location, age, favourite breakfast cereal, we get an array of amazing free tools and services that bring great convenience to our lives.
Most of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that targeted advertising is part of the bargain. There’s an argument (mainly made by the advertising industry) that people prefer targeted ads because they’re relevant. This could be true, but I’ve heard several of my friends complain about the Clearblue pregnancy test ad they always see on YouTube because they are around the 30 mark – there’s actually a Reddit thread about how annoying that ad is. As modern life demands we share even more personal data about ourselves, we continue to hand it over, no questions asked. Goolden’s not alone in skipping past the T&Cs and privacy policies when downloading an app though; I’d hazard a guess that most of us do it and the tech companies don’t make them easy to understand. “Most people feel so defeated about having their privacy taken from them by tech giants that they think, why bother. And you can't blame them,” says Violet Blue, hacking and cybercrime journalist and author of The Smart Girls Guide to Privacy. When it comes to data privacy, women have greater cause to be vigilant, especially when reproductive health is concerned, says Blue. There’s the risk of a malicious data breach. This happened to fitness tracking app Fitbit, revealing users’ locations – and if details about your blood flow and sex drive ended up in the public domain, this could feel even more violating. Blue says we should also be cautious about which companies the apps are sharing our data with, even though it’s usually anonymised. If, for example, an advertiser started serving pregnancy-related advertising to a woman who had recently conceived, people she might not want to know could find out, which could have negative consequences for her. There’s also the potential that medical insurance companies will see the data, which already happens in the US with health and fitness tracking apps. “If the period tracker was able to pinpoint any health problems, I'd be worried that an insurer might try to deny coverage – or insist on high rates – and not be prevented by law from doing so,” says Blue. With privatisation of the UK’s healthcare system underway, this could have implications for app users here further down the line. When tracking apps are made in Silicon Valley – a place seemingly plagued with workplace gender inequality, sexism and sexual harassment – the apps are more likely have a male point of view when it comes to user privacy and security, says Blue.
Clue is a period tracking app that wants to do things differently. For starters, its founder, Ida Tin, a Danish mother of two who lives in Berlin, isn’t a Silicon Valley bro. Tin says privacy is an important conversation to have and of all the privacy policies I trawled through on the various period-tracking apps’ websites, I found Clue’s, written in plain English, the easiest to follow. Anonymised data from Clue users who have an account are shared with academics and universities to help advance medical science. “If people give data, then they should also see benefits,” says Tin. “We live and die by the trust of users, so we handle their data with the utmost care,” she says. “We have an agreement with the user, so they understand what they get and what they give. Unfortunately that’s something that is not being practised in the industry,” she adds. At the moment, Clue is prioritising growing its user base of four million. Funded by venture capitalists, Clue will at some point have to start making money. Tin says rather than selling data onto advertisers – “the kind of business model I don't like” – she wants to make the service so good that people will pay for it. There are, however, no guarantees that somewhere down the line, the app won’t be bought by a company with different views on this – much in the same way that Whatsapp has now said it will share data with Facebook. “It is a risk, I really hope we will be able to stay true to who we are,” says Tin. While Tin takes privacy concerns seriously, she also wants to move the conversation on. “It’s easy to have all these negative connotations about data. But it’s a powerful tool and we need to be able to use it for good.” Women have fought – and continue to fight – for greater ownership of their bodies. We needn’t be alarmed about online privacy, but we do need to be informed, so our bodies don’t become a source of profit for a few.

More from Body

R29 Original Series