The debate over internet privacy started long before smartphone hit the market. But with the explosive growth of applications and lax privacy protections by some bad actors, the debate has spread to congressional hearings. Recently, a lot of conversations have touched on the safety of period-tracking apps, which many women use to keep up with their personal menstrual cycle timing and duration.
How private is your information in a period-tracking app? The answer largely depends on which app you use. Luckily, plenty of information is available to help you assess whether you’re using a fertility app that keeps your data safe.
Why You Might Use a Period-Tracking App
As our calendars have migrated online, many women also find tracking their cycle easier using a fitness app or a dedicated period-tracking app. While the features on various apps differ, in general they offer an easy way to keep up with the days when you might be fertile, when you probably aren’t fertile, if you’re likely experiencing PMS, and when your next period will start. Women who are trying to get pregnant or who have irregular periods and cycle may find the apps especially useful. However, those interested in using an app for those reasons should note that a study of several popular apps found they often missed predicting a woman’s fertile window over a six-month span.
Privacy Concerns About Your Personal Information
If you turn to St. Elizabeth women’s health services to discuss your period or other health issues, your provider and everyone else who sees your file is required to abide by HIPAA. This is a federal law that keeps medical information private unless you sign a waiver to release that information to someone else, such as a different provider or a family member. However, under current law, most health-related apps do not need to abide by HIPAA. This means under the app’s terms — usually buried in pages that can be hard to understand — the owners may choose to share your data with advertisers or other third parties.
Research looking at the privacy practices of health apps in the medical journals BMJ and JAMA separately found identifiable information being shared by most of the apps tested. Recent research by Mozilla looking specifically at period-tracking apps found that the majority had poor data-sharing policies and fragile security. The data tracking your period can not only be used to target you with ads related to pregnancy and fertility treatment, it could also be hacked or, in some cases, turned over to law enforcement without your consent or knowledge.
Get a Privacy Tune-Up
If you’re concerned about protecting your personal health data, simply deleting your period-tracking app is unlikely to wipe your slate clean. Almost everything you use — your phone, your web browser, your credit card, even your car — now has a digital trail. Your best bet is to research all health-related (and other) apps you use to find out what their policies are regarding data collection and storage. Look for apps that don’t store your location or IP address (which can be used to find your location), and ask apps to delete your stored data, whenever possible. And if you really don’t want anyone else knowing anything about your period, you can always go back to tried-and-true tracking on a good, old-fashioned paper calendar.
Talk with a Professional
Have more questions about your period? Schedule a visit with an OB/GYN health provider at St. Elizabeth Physicians in Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana.