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Bicycle-tracking apps stand behind their privacy policies as row teeters

Bicycle-tracking apps stand behind their privacy policies as row teeters

Fertility and cycle tracking apps are widely used and can be useful tools that help people monitor their health. But reports regularly show that, like other health apps, they fall short in terms of protecting user privacy. This shortcoming is particularly in the U.S. of concern to users in the U.S. because a leaked Supreme Court opinion indicated that the court intended to reverse Roe v. Wade - ending abortion rights in the United States and providing states with safe and life-saving medical procedures. permitting the criminalization of

Information stored in bicycle-tracking apps isn't covered by the medical privacy law HIPAA, so companies have wide leeway in how they use it -- and who they share it with. They often share information with data brokers, advertisers and other third parties that are difficult to track. One app, Flow, was cited by the Federal Trade Commission for sharing data with Facebook even though it promised users to keep the data private.

To date, data from things like bicycle tracking apps hasn't been used to prosecute pregnant people in the US, but data sucked in by other internet and app use has already been used for that exact purpose. .

"The fact that this is possible is a problem we shouldn't ignore," says Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow on the Ford Foundation's gender, racial and ethnic justice team, which published a 2020 paper on digital surveillance and abortion. wrote.

The Verge contacted a number of popular fertility tracking apps and products to ask whether they have any plans to adjust or strengthen protections around user data in response to news that abortion is likely in several states this summer. would be illegal. Several companies specified no planned changes in response to the news, instead leaning on their existing policies, which they said protect user data.

The smart ring Oura, which has a menstrual cycle tracking feature, has no plans to share, spokesman John Kuch said in an email. Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the period tracking feature on its Health app. Flow, the company cited by the FTC for sharing data, said in a statement by spokesperson Dene Thibault that the company underwent an audit in March 2022 that showed "no vulnerabilities in privacy practices" and that it does not share data with third parties. Is.

Brigitte Looney, a spokeswoman for popular period tracker Clue, said in an email to The Verge that the data in the app is "private and secure." “We have received messages from concerned users about how their data could be used by US courts if Rowe v. Wade is reversed. We fully understand this concern,” the statement said. It did not say whether the company would change or strengthen privacy protections.

Nerx, a telemedicine company that offers birth control and emergency contraception, said in a statement to spokeswoman Ann Noder that it keeps patient data confidential. "We will evaluate our response to any final decision in the light of our mission and principles related to contraceptive access and affordability," the statement said.

Glo said in an email to its press team that it will "continue to protect the privacy and personal health information of our users" but did not say whether it would make any changes to its policies.

Conti-Cook says he would be suspicious of companies that claim to tightly protect user data without looking at their business models. Data on pregnant or potentially pregnant people is valuable to advertisers and other third parties because it is a group that will go out and buy new things for a potential future baby. Selling that data, or making it available to partners, is the business model of these types of apps, she says. "It's the business model of all surveillance capitalism."

Clue, for one, states in its privacy policy that it does not share data with third parties or advertisers. It said in a blog post that its business model is not based on user data. But Glo and Noorx say in the privacy policies that they share the data for marketing and advertising purposes. Flo's policy states that it shares "non-health personal data" for marketing purposes.

And all four of those companies, along with Oura Ring, state in their privacy policies that they will share personal user data in response to subpoenas or legal obligations.

The main concern for legal experts right now is that a person's data from these apps could be used against them if they are already suspected of terminating a pregnancy. But it can't stop there, says Jerome Greco, a public defender in the Digital Forensics Unit of the Legal Aid Society in New York City. “I think in the future it may become more widespread, and they can collect and parse the data to try to identify suspects,” he says. "I think law enforcement is more tech-savvy than ever in history and they have more resources than ever before."

Much of the digital information used to prosecute people for terminating a pregnancy is Internet searches and analysis of someone's physical phone – such as a Mississippi woman who was hospitalized after giving birth to a stillborn fetus and Whose internet search on how to induce an abortion was history accusing her of murder.

“We have seen cases where women’s Google searches, unencrypted communications, emails and other types of messages – such as Facebook Messenger – were used against them and social media posts,” Conti-Cook says.

It is difficult to predict the new ways that personal health data and other digital tools to criminalize abortion could be used to prosecute people they suspect of terminating a pregnancy. But being vigilant about imaginary situations that might happen in the future helps people protect themselves, Conti-Cook says.

Conti-Cook says there are steps people concerned about their data being used against them during abortions can take steps to protect themselves: Don't share your phone with the police, social workers, or anyone in the hospital. Use an Internet browser that blocks tracking. Use encrypted text messaging apps to discuss anything sensitive.

"Our digital autonomy is an extension of our physical autonomy, and that's how we need to start thinking about it," she says.

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