More and more women use a period tracker: an app that keeps track of your menstrual cycle. However, these apps do not always treat the intimate data that you share with them carefully.
An app that notifies you when to expect your period or when you are fertile can be useful, for example to predict when you can expect to suffer the side effects that for a lot of women come with being on your period. In itself, keeping track of your cycle is nothing new: putting marks in your diary or on your calendar have always been an easy way to take your cycle into account. But sharing data on the workings of your body with an app is more risky.
There seems to be quite a large market for period tracker apps. From “Ladytimer Maandstonden Cyclus Kalender” to “Magic Teen Girl Period Tracker”, from “Vrouwenkalender” to “Flo” – all neatly lined up in different shades of pink in the appstore. “Femtech” is seen as a growing market that has raised billion-dollar investments over the last couple of years by different startups. Are these apps made to provide women with more insight into the workings of their bodies, or to monetise that need?
It’s interesting to look at the kind of data these apps collect. The app usually opens with a calendar overview. In the overview you can input the date of your last period. In addition, you can keep a daily record of how you feel (happy, unhappy, annoyed) and whether you experience blood loss. But for most of these apps it doesn’t end there. Have you had sex? And if so, with or without protection? With yourself or with another person? How would you grade the orgasm? Did you have a stomach ache? Were your bowel movements normal? Did you feel like having sex? Sensitive breasts? An acne problem? Did you drink alcohol? Exercise? Did you eat healthy?
For a number of these questions it is understandable why answering them might be useful, if the app wants to learn to predict in what stage of your cycle you are. But a lot of these questions are quite intimate. And all this sensitive data often seems to end up in possession of the company behind the app. The logical question then is: What exactly does a company do with all this data you hand over? Do you have any say in that? Do they treat it carefully? Is the data shared with other parties?
After digging through a number of privacy statements, it appears that one of the most used apps in the Netherlands, “Menstruatie Kalender”, gives Facebook the permission to show in-app advertisements. It’s not clear what information Facebook gathers about you from the app to show you advertisements. For example, does Facebook get information on when you are having your period?
Another frequently used app in the Netherlands is “Clue”. It’s the only one we found that has a comprehensive and easily readable privacy statement. You can use the app without creating an account in which case data is solely stored locally on your phone. If you do choose to create an account you give explicit consent to share your data with the company. In that case it is stored on secure servers. With your consent it will also be used for academic research into women’s health.
This can not be said of many other apps. Their privacy statements are often long and difficult to read, and require good reading-between-the-lines skills to understand that data is being shared with “partners”. It’s possible that the sensitiveness of your breasts in itself is not very interesting to an advertiser, but by keeping track of your cycle the apps automatically acquire information on the possible start of one of the most interesting periods of your life for marketeers: motherhood.
The most extreme example is Glow, the company behind the period tracker app “Eve”. Their app is focused on the potential desire to have children. The company’s tagline is as straightforward as they come: “Women are 40% more likely to conceive when using Glow as a fertility tracker”. Besides Eve, Glow has three other apps: an ovulation and fertility tracker, a baby tracker and a pregnancy tracker. The apps link to the Glow-community, a network of forums where hundreds of women share their experiences and give each other tips.
But that’s not the only thing that Glow offers. You can’t use a Glow webpage or app without being shown the “Fertility Program”. For 1200-7000 euro, you can enroll in different fertility programs. Too expensive? You are able to take out a cheap loan through a partnership with a bank. And in the end, freezing your eggs, if you are in your early thirties, is the most economically viable option, according to the website.
Turns out that Glow is a company selling fertility products. It has built a number of apps to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) attract more female customers. As a consumer you think you are using an app for keeping track of your cycle, but in the meantime you are constantly notified of all the possibilities of freezing your eggs, the costs of pregnancy at a higher age, and your limited fertile years. Before you know it, you are lying awake at age 30, wondering whether it would be more “economical” to freeze your eggs.
These apps shed light on what seems to be a contract to which we are forced to consent more and more often. In exchange for the use of an app that makes our lives a little bit easier, we have to give away a lot of personal information, without knowing exactly what happens with it. The fact that these apps deal with intimate information doesn’t mean that the creators treat it more carefully. To the contrary: it increases the market value of that data.
So before you download one of these apps, or advise your daughter to download one, think again. Take your time to read an app’s privacy statement, to know exactly what the company does with your data. But there is also a responsibility for the regulatory body, such as the Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens in the Netherlands, to ensure companies don’t abuse your intimate data.
Are you using one of these apps and do you want to know which data the company has gathered on you, or do you want to have that data erased? You can easily draw up a request which you can send by mail or email using My Data Done Right.
Bits of Freedom
Who profits from period trackers? (25.01.2019)
Who benefits from cycle trackers? (only in Dutch, 03.12.2018)
(Contribution by EDRi member Bits of Freedom; translated from Dutch by volunteer Axel Leering)