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Colorado women join purge of period-tracking apps, but experts warn privacy risks go deeper

When Lisa Vallejos’ 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son woke up the morning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, she called them into the living room.

That’s where they hold family meetings for serious discussions.

“I sat them down and said here’s what just happened and here’s what I need from y’all to really make sure that I can keep you safe,” Vallejos said.

For Vallejos and other parents, that not only includes communicating about having sex and accidental pregnancies but also protecting personal data online by getting rid of apps like period trackers, which people use to track monthly cycles and windows of fertility.

Even though Vallejos lives in Denver, in a state where abortion rights are protected, with bans in other states, she said pregnancy now comes with a much higher burden. People across the country have been worrying about what those apps could reveal about them, and if missed periods will be tracked and the data sold to private companies or the government. Experts say deleting the apps doesn’t really mean a person is protecting their data, but it has still caused people to reconsider what information they provide online.

“We’ve talked about (how) the internet is never private and we use private browsers like Duck, Duck, Go to provide an element of safety and protection,” Vallejos said of talking to her kids. “But the Roe v. Wade ruling really raised my alarms about that because where we’re heading right now as a country, I really wouldn’t be surprised if there was something like a department of ‘protecting the unborn’ that comes up whose entire job is to find people who are potentially seeking abortion care.”

Her daughter Eden said period tracking apps now feel especially “invasive.” Both Eden and her mother had been using phone apps to track their periods.

The apps, Vallejos said, also pose more risk for people who don’t have regular periods. Vallejos, who described herself as Latine, worries even more about the disproportionate effects this kind of targeting could have on marginalized communities such as people of color and those who are LGBTQ. Eden identifies as bisexual and her mom as a critical polyamorist. So, Vallejos told her daughter to stick to pen and paper.

That’s what Englewood resident Shannon Steele has also been recommending to people. She has seen discussions about which apps are safer, including those based in Europe, and which ones promise to keep data safe. But for Steele, that’s not enough.

“Women need to be very diligent right now,” Steele said. “And let’s face it, everything ends up getting hacked one way or another. … No app is safe. I don’t care how good it is, someone will have access.”

Steele recognizes that it’s not possible to be completely anonymous online, but she worries about how much and the type of information period apps store.

Planned Parenthood has its own period tracking app, which allows users the option to be anonymous when submitting data, but Steele said she would even be cautious with that, knowing that even the right to privacy is being threatened.

So, should everyone rush to delete their period tracking apps? It’s not necessarily that simple, said Kelly Martin, Colorado State University marketing professor and data privacy expert.

There have been a lot of discussions about deleting these apps on social media, and some posts have even shared what Martin calls “alarmist perspectives.” But deleting the apps is only a band-aid solution, she said, especially for people who have already been using the apps and their data has already been saved. Some apps store data on the cloud and may have already shared it.

“If it’s an app that limits the data storage to your phone, then deleting the app can be effective, but they’re very few that actually are set up that way,” Martin said.

Apps like Clue, based in Europe, and Stardust, have told users they would protect their data, and many people instead downloaded those apps.

“I think trying to do your homework and your due diligence is always great. But to be fair, to the average consumer, it’s really tricky to figure this stuff out. Just even like looking through a company’s privacy policy. Sometimes they’re obviously very difficult to navigate,” Martin said.

She recommends using Consumer Reports Digital Lab which evaluates different privacy terms.

The concerns about companies or other entities building a profile of someone with their data online is a valid concern, Martin said. But the apps are only one piece of the larger picture. Online searches, shopping habits, text messages sent and news articles clicked allow companies to build a detailed profile of a person and identify if they may be pregnant. In fact, search history, emails and text messages have been used to charge people in other states over stillborn deaths or miscarriages. GPS data from phones could also be used in the future if states prevent travel for abortions.

Martin said it’s actually more important than ever for women to track their cycles and overall health, given the restrictions on abortions across the country, but “old-school strategies” may be the way to go.

Still, Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said she’s glad the discussion about period apps is bringing to light the broader issue of data tracking and surveillance — something that was used against Muslims after 9/11, immigrant communities targeted for deportation and even Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s also not new to people in vulnerable positions, like domestic violence survivors who’ve seen data tracked used against them, Ozer said.

“This should be a wake-up call for everybody about what kinds of personal information is being collected, retained and how it can potentially be used down the line in ways that you couldn’t imagine and that will harm you,” she said. “And to really think critically and thoughtfully about what types of services you’re using and what kinds of protections those companies have in place and to push for greater protections.”

Coloradans may soon also have an added protection, though it gets more complicated if the apps they’re using are in other states or countries. A new data privacy law is expected to take effect in 2022 that would allow people to opt-out of data collection on websites or have their data deleted. But Ozer said a federal law is being discussed about data protections that’s weaker than the Colorado law and California law, and it could end up superseding them.

“We need to be doing all we can to stop any increases in surveillance infrastructure here in the Bay area as well in places like Colorado … (because) the information that a company collects, is now incredibly vulnerable for other potential uses to harm people who are seeking reproductive health care,” Ozer said.

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