Since the annulment of the Supreme Court’s draft decision: Roe v. Wade leaked† Influencers, activists and privacy advocates have urged users to remove period-tracking apps from their devices and remove their information from associated services. With abortion banned in several states, data from such apps can be used in criminal investigations into abortion seekers, and a missed period — or even just an unlogged one — can be used as evidence of a crime.
These services, like many “wellness” apps, are not HIPPA bound, and many have a long history of shady practices resulting in fines and regulatory scrutiny. The mistrust in them is well founded. Calls to remove period or fertility tracking apps, however, obscure what privacy experts say is a much bigger problem.
“Time-tracking apps are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to our data privacy,” said Lia Holland, campaign and communications director for Fight for the Future, an advocacy group focused on digital rights. While submitting data to a bike-tracking app could lead to them being “unmasked by your phone,” they said, there are plenty of other ways actionable data could make its way to law enforcement. “That Outing” […] could just as easily happen through a game you have installed that tracks your location to a Planned Parenthood clinic.
India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, warned similar words about mundane and seemingly harmless online activity. “Search history, browser history, content of communication, social media, financial transactions [..] all of these things aren’t necessarily related to period trackers, but could be of interest to law enforcement.”
Nor is this an abstract problem: Before the constitutional right to abortion was lifted, there were cases of pregnant women using their search history and text messages against them after their pregnancy ended.
In a much-cited case, a Mississippi woman who had a stillbirth at home was charged with murder for searching online for abortion pills. (The charges were eventually dropped.) In another case, an Indiana woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide after prosecutors cited her text messages as evidence that her miscarriage was a self-induced abortion. “Prosecutors argued that she had used abortion-inducing drugs purchased online, which is illegal in the United States, but police could find no evidence other than text messages discussing that the drugs had been purchased,” the spokesperson said. . the cut† Her conviction was eventually overturned, but only after she spent three years in prison.
There are other, more insidious ways in which people seeking abortions can be tracked online. A recent study by To reveal and the layout found that Facebook’s advertising tools — which siphon data from large swaths of the internet, including some hospitals — were used by anti-abortion groups to monitor people seeking abortion services, despite Meta’s rules against collecting such data . Data collected by the groups was also shared with separate anti-abortion marketing agencies, allowing them to target ads to “abortion-conscious women,” the report said. Experts who spoke with To reveal noted that the same data can be easily handed over to law enforcement.
Just visiting a physical location can be enough to put someone at risk. Data brokers already track and sell location data related to abortion clinic visits. Last month, Motherboard reported that a data broker, SafeGraph, sold a week’s worth of location data for Planned Parenthood and other clinic locations, including “where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed there, and where they went afterward,” for just $160. source of those datasets of reproductive health clinic visits? “Ordinary apps installed on people’s phones.”
Following the report, SafeGraph said it would stop selling data sets related to family planning center locations. But that doesn’t mean the apps on your phone won’t keep track of where you go. And SafeGraph is just one of many companies in the shadowy and mostly unregulated multi-billion dollar data broker industry.
“Most people don’t know that the apps on their phone do this,” Holland says. “And in fact, a lot of developers who build these apps — because they use these very easy-to-use preset tools with that black box surveillance hidden inside — don’t even know that their own apps are endangering abortion patients.”
Concerns about this kind of blanket location determination led lawmakers to urge Google to change data collection practices to protect people seeking reproductive health care. They cited the now common practice of geofence orders, which are “orders demanding data on anyone who was near a particular location at any given time.” Last month they warned that if roe “It is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will obtain legal injunctions to track down, prosecute and imprison women for obtaining critical reproductive health care.” Despite the urgency surrounding data collection practices for tech companies — and what new legal obligations they may now have to hand over that data to law enforcement — the industry’s largest companies have remained silent so far.
So while concerns about time-tracking apps are justified, they’re only a small part of a much bigger problem. And removing the services from your phone isn’t enough on its own to ensure that your personal information can’t be used against you. But while users may be heavily outnumbered by a vast and largely unregulated industry, they are not completely helpless.
Holland and McKinney highlighted the importance of protecting your private messages and browsing history, through encrypted messaging apps and privacy-protecting browsers. When it comes to period tracking apps, Holland recommends looking for apps that only store data locally, not in the cloud. And if you’re visiting a place where you don’t want your phone to track you, the safest option is to just leave your phone at home, McKinney says. “Your phone is tracking you, so leave it at home if you don’t want it to know where you’re going.”
But in the end, both Holland and McKinney agree that privacy should not rest on the individual. Lawmakers must introduce privacy laws that limit what kind of data apps can collect. “Right now there aren’t many restrictions on what companies can do with people’s data,” McKinney says. “We really need legislation to fix a lot of the stuff in the back, and not make it like that” [I] research to find out the best privacy practices I should take before dealing with a particularly stressful situation in my life.”
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