When my husband and I decided we wanted to start our family, I did what most people are told to do: I found an app for that. I downloaded period and ovulation tracking apps as we tried (for longer than we wanted) to become first-time parents. I gave those apps whatever they wanted because I wanted a baby.
When I got pregnant, I downloaded a pregnancy app. I gave that app whatever it wanted because I wanted a healthy baby.
When my daughter was born, I forgot about the apps (but, like many, left them on my phone) and figured I’d start tracking again as my period returned to help me get what I wanted: no second baby (yet).
When my daughter was five months old, I started feeling sick. I figured I couldn’t be pregnant again. I was.
I was already struggling with postpartum depression after a difficult first pregnancy and felt overwhelmed at being a mom again.
Then my OB-GYN said she couldn’t find a fetal heartbeat and they discovered a cluster of tumors in my uterus. They said I would probably have a miscarriage and to return in a week.
When I returned, the doctor confirmed: I was having a molar pregnancy, a rare type of nonviable pregnancy. It can also lead to cancer if not treated. They said I couldn’t wait to see what would happen or to see if I would naturally miscarry. I had to have an abortion.
But it didn’t end there. With a suspected molar pregnancy, they needed to closely monitor my hormone levels. It was also critically important to not get pregnant again in that period.
So, it was back to using apps.
Now that abortion is no longer protected by the Constitution as a result of the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, privacy experts are raising concerns about law enforcement potentially using data obtained from these apps to find women who seek or receive abortions illegally or out of state. Many suggest deleting the app. But these apps aren’t expendable, and telling women to delete them isn’t a realistic option.
As a consultant to a digital privacy watchdog, I’ve learned there are some things women like myself can do to better protect our privacy and safeguard our online footprint. Here are some things I’m doing to better protect my data:
Try my best to read privacy policies. I find many privacy policies hard to understand, but I look for key practices, such as end-to-end encryption, short term retention of data, and minimization of data collection. I also want policies to explain in detail how they use, collect, and share health information.
If a period tracking or pregnancy app is using my location data, I’m not using it. Don’t opt-in to sharing location data, especially if the data are being shared with third party companies in other countries. Location data should be collected only if it makes sense for the service offered. My running app? That makes sense. My period and pregnancy tracking apps? There is no need.
If possible, use Google Fit or Apple Health. These apps didn’t offer everything I wanted in a period and pregnancy tracker app, but Apple Health is a more secure option, with strict standards that this data can’t be stored, it must be secure, and it can’t be shared with third parties for advertising. For Android users, Google Fit has stated it does not share health data with advertisers.
Submit data deletion requests. The California Consumer Privacy Act mandates California residents have the right to ask companies to delete their data, which has pushed some companies to honor data deletion requests for all users. Contact an app’s customer support and inquire about deleting your data. Unfortunately, unless you live in a state where CCPA eases access to data deletion, the process can be frustrating or inefficient.
Congress and SCOTUS have refused to act to protect women.
App developers and platforms must step up and ensure appropriate protections are in place.
Women should not have to shoulder the burden of responsibility to protect ourselves and our data.
It is time for others to provide real, lasting protections in light of the failures of our system.
Amanda Munger is a partner at Melwood Global and serves as a communications consultant for the International Digital Accountability Council. She served as a spokesperson at the Departments of Homeland Security and Interior in the Obama administration.