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Precautionary Tale

Period-tracking apps scramble to anonymize user data amid new abortion prosecution risks

Millions of women use fertility or period-tracking apps to monitor their menstrual cycle, some hoping for help getting pregnant and others trying to avoid pregnancy. Some of those apps are now working on updates to anonymize user data in response to the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Roe v. Wade and open the door to criminalizing abortion, The Wall Street Journal reports. Each state is working out how abortion will be restricted or not in post-Roe America.

Period-tracking services "hold sensitive data that could be used against people in states where abortion may be criminalized," the Journal reports. "Different types of digital breadcrumbs, including information that can be subpoenaed from period trackers, can create detailed profiles of users when put together," legal experts say, and "even before Roe was overturned, menstrual data has been used in government investigations." 

In 2019, for example, the director of Missouri's state health department admitted in court that he kept a spreadsheet tracking the menstrual cycles of women who visited the only Planned Parenthood in the state that provided abortions. 

"Deleting your app from your phone does not always mean you've deleted your data anywhere other than your device," University of Houston's Leah Fowler tells the Journal. "Sometimes you have to contact an app's customer-service support team directly to ensure that your historical data has been wiped on the developer's end."

Some apps are working to make it easier. "The goal is to make it so no one — not even us at Natural Cycles — can identify the user," said Natural Cycles co-CEO Raoul Scherwitzl. Flo said it will soon launch an "Anonymous Mode." Apple says data on its Health app is already encrypted end-to-end and can't be shared or sold. 

Not every state that bans abortion plans to prosecute women seeking to end a pregnancy, but there's "a vocal minority who have said women who get abortions should face prison time," and they are "growing more organized" and notching minor victories, the Journal reports

Many experts had predicted that if Roe fell and legislation was no longer just a political statement, state legislatures would pass more moderate bans, Mary Ziegler, a professor at University of California, Davis, tells the Journal. "What you're seeing is actually the opposite. Now that states have the ability to potentially enforce abortion laws, they're doing more extreme, more sweeping things."