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Many worry about data privacy on period apps but may not take steps to protect it, study shows


Many worry about data privacy on period apps but may not take steps to protect it, study shows

May 16, 2024 | 12:21 pm ET
By Elisha Brown
Many worry about data privacy on period apps but may not take steps to protect it, study shows
Researchers say more public awareness about how health data is collected on period apps — and more transparency from tech companies — is necessary. | Olga Rolenko/Getty Images

Americans are concerned about menstrual data collected by period-tracking apps, but few users took steps to shield their privacy after Roe v. Wade fell in June 2022, according to new research.

Fears arose post-Roe that law enforcement could request menstrual data from period apps when investigating abortion, or that the info would be otherwise surveilled. But out of the nearly 200 people Duke University researchers surveyed about concerns with period-tracking apps, just 9% said they did something to alleviate their fears, such as deleting the app.

“This may suggest that the overturn of Roe v. Wade has played a limited role in female users’ privacy concerns and practices toward period-tracking apps,” researchers wrote in the study.

‘Delete your period-tracking apps,’ reproductive rights experts say

Health info stored on most period-tracking apps is not protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, ProPublica reported.

Pardis Emami-Naeini, an associate professor of computer science at Duke University, was part of the research team for the study. “There were some participants who did not know why the overturn of Roe had anything to do with privacy per se,” Emami-Naeini, who served as mentor to her undergraduate co-authors, told me on Wednesday.

After weeding out some participants who lived in states with abortion limits based on fetal viability, the group examined responses from 183 people. Roughly half of them lived in seven states — Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont — and Washington, D.C., where there was no gestational limit on abortion.

The others lived in one of 14 states where abortion was banned — Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — and Wisconsin, which had a near-total ban in effect during the time of the research.

Most of the participants said data-sharing was a top concern for them when using period-tracking apps, followed by user control, the type of data that is collected and where it’s being stored. Thirty-seven percent said app companies turning over personal data, especially menstrual information, to law enforcement and government officials would be unacceptable.

“Sharing personal information of this nature with law enforcement is unnecessary, not to mention incredibly wrong,” said an Alabama resident who participated in the survey.

Political affiliation also played a factor in people’s answers about period-tracking apps. Republicans were more concerned about data practices than Democrats, according to the study. Half of the respondents who identified as members of the GOP lived in states where abortion is banned.

And 13% of participants who took steps to manage their privacy concerns post-Roe said tracking their periods was a necessary evil. “I need to keep track of my cycles because I literally can’t function on day 2 and day 3,” a Texas resident said.

The researchers said the results show that greater education and awareness about how health data is stored on the apps is needed going forward.

“One of the things that we really want the app companies to think about is to provide more transparency about data practices of the app,” Emami-Naeini said.