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Pregnancy tracking app raises questions about privacy

Diana Diller, 39, an event planner, shows Ovia at her home in Los Angeles. Diller used the app to track her pregnancy, as did her employer, who paid to gain access to the intimate details of its workers' personal lives. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung
Philip Cheung for The Washington Post
Diana Diller, 39, an event planner, used Ovia at her home in Los Angeles.

Most women don’t tell their bosses when they’re trying to conceive. But what if an app did it for them? 

Questions about such menstrual monitoring arose this week in relation to Ovia Health, a Boston-based maker of fertility, pregnancy, and parenting-tracking apps, and the data that it has been offering employers through partnerships with health insurance providers.

For the past several years, Ovia has partnered with insurers to offer its apps as a benefit to employees. But a report in the Washington Post this week found that employers can access data about their employees through those insurance partnerships.

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Paris Wallace, Ovia’s cofounder and chief executive, said that the company provides the highest level of privacy controls over its data, which is both HIPAA and Hitrust certified. 

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“We don’t share anyone’s individual-level data,” he said. “We share aggregated data with employers,” in order to prove how enrolled and engaged users are, and how effective the apps can be in improving health outcomes. 

But Lalana Kagal, a principal researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said that aggregating data “doesn’t guarantee privacy.”

“It’s unclear to me why employers who are not health care providers should get access to that data,” she said.

When a staffer signs up to use an Ovia app, information from the company’s insurer is filtered through it, suggesting services, such as acupuncture or a labor preparation class, that are covered by insurance.

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Unlike the company’s general consumer apps, these employer-hosted apps also allow for nurse coaches to monitor a user’s inputs and identify potential health concerns such as preeclampsia. Ovia’s pitch to insurers has been that, by providing companies with apps that help women track their health, they could prevent expensive health care costs down the line. 

But the Post report detailed some of the information employers can access through those insurance partnerships.

According to the Post, an employer can look at aggregate data to see how many employees using the apps faced high-risk births or pregnancies. They also could ascertain the top questions users were researching, and how soon new mothers planned to return to work. 

Privacy and health advocates decried those findings, saying that companies could use such information to raise the cost of insurance or cut high-cost health care benefits. And many said that even if the app provided aggregated data, there could be ways to cross-reference it and identify users, opening them up to privacy breaches or discrimination.

But Kaite Rosa of Southborough, who used a free consumer version of the fertility app in 2017, said the blowback is sensationalist.

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“Employers only get an aggregate of the data, which the Post mentions briefly,” said Rosa, who previously worked for a health tech company that sold to employers, in a Facebook message. “They cannot drill into the data, because that’s against HIPAA.”

Wallace, Ovia’s CEO, said the app has benefited women — at home and at work.

He said 30 percent of infertile members were able to conceive naturally after using the app, and there were 30 percent reductions in pre-term births because the app helped identify risks and engage patients in interventions.

Forty percent of pregnant women in the United States use Ovia, he added, and some 5 million women have conceived using its fertility platform. That adds up to a significant health benefit for the country, he said, at a time when there is growing concern about maternal health and infant mortality.

Wallace said companies can get weekly reports about how the apps are used, but most companies’ human resource departments engage with Ovia on a quarterly basis to learn how the app is serving staffers.

“We’re not telling people how many people are ovulating or who’s having sex, that’s outrageous and not true,” Wallace said. “We would never do that.”

But Helen Nissenbaum, an information science professor at Cornell Tech, said that until such tracking apps are regulated by the government, there are far too many opportunities for employees’ data to be compromised. 

“It’s kind of one of these devil’s bargains,” she said. Companies offer wellness apps as a way to help employees and cut insurance costs. “But on the other side, what’s happening is your employers now have a window into your life.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.