Abortion ban in the USA: will menstrual cycle tracking apps become snitches?

Remi Bouvet

June 28, 2022 at 8:20 a.m.


Flo © Flo

© Flo

The question may seem delusional at first sight, but it is not: it all depends on the legal framework.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States revoked the constitutional right to abortion, in force since 1973, by overturning the decision Roe v Wade. In the aftermath, several states, about ten at the time of writing, have made voluntary termination of pregnancy illegal. Some have already classified or are considering classifying abortion as a homicide. This criminalization could turn menstrual cycle tracking apps into snitches.

Millions of users

This is the fear raised by Rina Torchinsky in an article for the independent media NPR. The post reports that privacy experts are concerned about how data collected by period-tracking apps, among others, could be used to penalize anyone considering or seeking an abortion.

We are very concerned […] by what happens when private companies or governments can gain access to very sensitive data about people’s lives and activities “, explains Lydia XZ Brown, political adviser to the Center for Democracy and Technology Privacy and Data Project. ” Especially when this data is likely to pose a real risk of harm to people […] “.

These menstrual cycle monitoring applications have several million users: 43 million for Flo, the most popular, 12 million for Clue. Naturally, the data entered there is likely to reveal a possible pregnancy.

Revealing applications, among others

More generally, Evan Greer, Director of the Digital Rights Advocacy Group Fight for the Future, believes that all applications that collect location data could be used to establish links with an abortion. She gives the example of someone traveling to a clinic in another state to have an abortion and whose trip would be immediately known to a whole bunch of apps; ditto for history on a search engine.

Of course, a cycle tracking app like Flo insists on protecting personal data. The company guarantees that no private information is sold to third parties and that these are very well protected. Only, in fact, the application narrowly avoided a lawsuit in the United States at the beginning of 2021: it was rightly accused of having shared personal data with third-party companies… In addition, even assuming total probity, you won’t learn anything, no system is infallible.

However, the article by Rina Torchinsky suggests that groups of activists could try to buy – not to say steal – this data for the purposes of denunciation or slander. These accusations are unfounded for the moment, but the laws of certain States could encourage, or even regulate such practices. For example in Texas, SB8 (Senate Bill 8) prohibits abortion as soon as cardiac activity is detectable (about six weeks) and rewards a tidy sum (at least $10,000) for anyone who unmasks an abortion service provider.

Data possibly sold, stolen or legally communicated

All these projections look crazy at first sight. Only in reality, everything depends on the legal framework. During criminal investigations, application managers are often legally compelled to collaborate with law enforcement. Data related to abortion could thus very well come within this framework as long as this practice is considered a homicide and involves criminal proceedings.

Already, in states like Texas or Louisiana, abortion can be punished by prison sentences of several years, including for “accomplicating” caregivers.

Based on this observation, a legitimate question arises: should American women no longer use these applications? It all depends on where you live and what laws apply. “says Andrea Ford, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. ” If I lived in a state where abortion is actively criminalized, I wouldn’t be using a period tracker, that’s for sure. If you want to be completely safe, use a paper calendar ».

Finally, to come back to Flo, know that the application announced a few days ago, in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, that it would soon offer an anonymous mode. This will offer users the possibility of taking advantage of the application without having to communicate certain personal information.

Source : NPR

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