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Period trackers ‘coercing’ women into sharing risky information

Female health monitoring apps are putting women at risk by “coercing” them into disclosing – and then poorly handling – highly sensitive data, according to new research.

The study examined the privacy policies and data safety labels of 20 of the most popular of these kind of apps, which are commonly used to help women conceive.

It found a host of poor data-management practices, including some apps not having a delete function, even for highly personal information such as menstrual cycles and miscarriages.

Its authors say it is the most extensive evaluation its kind completed to date.

They say the apps are used by hundreds of millions of people.

The BBC has contacted a number of app providers – none have responded to a request for comment.

“While female health apps are vital to the management of women’s health worldwide, their benefits are currently being undermined by privacy and safety issues,” the lead author of the study, Dr Ruba Abu-Salma, from King’s College London, told the BBC.

“Mismanaging or leaking reproductive health data can lead to dire consequences, with blackmail, discrimination, and violence being among the worst,” she added.

The research – which was was carried out jointly by King’s and University College London – looked at the most popular apps in the US and UK, as downloaded from Google Play stores.

The issue of reproductive health data is particularly sensitive in the US following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.

Some privacy experts are concerned that data from menstrual tracking apps could be used to prosecute anyone seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

Intimate data stored by health tracking apps can show details of sexual activity, contraception and when periods stop and start – with some also asking for information about abortions or miscarriages.

The research concludes that “in many instances” women’s data could be subject to access from law enforcement or security authorities.

It found only one app explicitly addressed the sensitivity of menstrual data with regard to law enforcement in their privacy policies and made efforts to safeguard users against legal threats.

The changed legal landscape in America “added urgency” to the conversation there, Dr Abu-Salma said.

But she said it was not the only place where concerns about health trackers exist – pointing out they are subject to an investigation by regulators in the UK too.

Other key findings from the study include:

  • 35% of apps claimed not to share personal data with third parties but contradicted this in their privacy policies
  • 50% assured users that health data would not be shared with advertisers, but were ambiguous about other data collected
  • 45% of privacy policies denied responsibility for third-party practices, despite claiming to vet them.

Female-focussed technology has boomed in recent years, with the market expected to exceed $75 billion by 2025.

But Lisa Malki, another of the study’s authors, said the industry needed to get better at protecting the women whose data it was using.

“There is a tendency by app developers to treat period and fertility data as ‘another piece of data’ as opposed to uniquely sensitive data which has the potential to stigmatise or criminalise users,” she said.

“It is vital that developers start to acknowledge unique privacy and safety risks to users and adopt practices which promote a humanistic and safety-conscious approach to developing health technologies.”  –