Should You Delete Your Period Tracking App?

Trigger warning: The following article contains language about abortion and miscarriage.

For years, people who menstruate have been using apps such as Flo, Clue, Glow, Period Plus, MagicGirl, and My Calendar to track their menstrual cycles. The patterns that the apps reveal can be incredibly useful for anyone trying to get pregnant — and for anyone just trying to avoid a white-pants mishap. Plus, tracking your menstrual cycle is helpful for keeping tabs on your general health.

However, period-tracking apps record a mind-boggling amount of sensitive data about users (per Privacy International), such as birthdate, location details, weight, mood patterns, health history, birth control usage, sexual activity, and even masturbation frequency.

The recent reversal of Roe v. Wade is predicted to have far-reaching effects on everything from the legality of abortion pills sold across state lines to decisions about what to do with fertilized eggs left over from IVF treatments. It may seem like a scenario straight out of a dystopian novel such as Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," but women's rights in America are rapidly being curtailed in unfathomable ways. This has some people worried about the data recorded in period trackers being used to prosecute anyone who has an abortion or even, in some cases, a miscarriage.

The Guardian reports that even before the Supreme Court's decision was handed down, many Americans were deleting their period-tracking apps. Should you delete yours, too?

Period tracker data can be used in criminal investigations

With the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, more and more states are racing to ban abortion (via The New York Times). American companies that make period trackers can be forced to share the information they collect with law-enforcement officials investigating a possible crime.

University of Virginia School of Law professor Danielle Citron laid out a sample scenario for the CBC. "You got your period on X date, you missed your period, then let's say, for example, 20 weeks later you got your period again, and that in that time period your location shows that you went to a clinic either in the state or out of the state — that in so many respects is the circumstantial evidence that a prosecutor needs." Citron recommended that individuals be cautious and delete period-tracking apps from their phones.

Sociologist Gina Neff, who's the director of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge, told The New York Times that these apps are filled with "powerful information about reproductive choices that's now a threat." On the day of the Supreme Court's reversal, Neff tweeted, "Right now, and I mean this instant, delete every digital trace of any menstrual tracking. Please."

Deleting your period tracking app isn't enough

Unfortunately for anyone who undergoes an abortion that has now been deemed illegal, merely deleting a period tracker isn't enough to ward off potential criminal prosecution (via The Verge). For one thing, the data is often stored in the cloud, which means that deleting the app from your phone won't necessarily delete the associated data from the company's servers.

Even worse, period trackers are just one of many data sources that prosecutors can use when building a case. Civil rights lawyer Cynthia Conti-Cook, who's also a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, published an academic paper in 2020 warning about how law enforcement could use data extracted from common digital devices to prosecute people who have abortions.

She wrote, "In addition to online search histories, additional voluminous data is generated through engagement with various apps (especially menstrual tracking apps), wearable technology, home devices connected to the internet, purchasing history, government agencies' routine data collection, and social media activity. This data is discoverable to law enforcement through sophisticated digital forensic tools that help prosecutors cultivate digital evidence they then take to support allegations of criminal motives behind various decisions people make during pregnancy."

As just one chilling example, consider Purvi Patel's feticide trial in 2015 (per The New York Times). Text messages to Patel's friend about illegally ordering abortion pills from overseas were presented as evidence against Patel.

Be careful who you tell about a planned abortion

There are many other ways the police can find out information about illegal abortions. Sometimes an anti-abortion friend or relative is the one who betrays an individual to the authorities.

Sometimes it's an employee at a crisis pregnancy center. Under the guise of providing healthcare, these centers actually pressure pregnant individuals into deciding against abortion (per Planned Parenthood). They have been known to provide details to the police about individuals who go ahead with the procedure.

And sometimes the person who informs law-enforcement officials is the pregnant individual's own doctor. "We have had many, many cases where people are criminalized because healthcare providers have reported them to the police," Dana Sussman, acting executive director at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Verge. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, medical professionals can sometimes be forced to break the HIPAA privacy rule and disclose protected health information in criminal investigations — and in an increasing number of states, abortion is now a crime (via PBS).

Margaret Atwood warned us about the possible rolling back of women's rights when she published "The Handmaid's Tale" back in 1985. "There's a precedent in real life for everything in the book," she told People in 2017 when many Americans were worried that President Trump would succeed in banning abortions throughout the country. "I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn't already done. But you write these books so they won't come true."