Update: Google Maps and Search get clearer labels for abortion providers.
The period-tracking apps Flo and Clue are trying to reassure their combined 55 million users that personal data logged into both apps is safe following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the long-standing Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed the legal right to an abortion.
The very real concern is that in states which choose to ban abortion outright — six have already automatically come into force, with 16 more expected before the end of 2022 (opens in new tab) — women’s private mobile phone data will be used against them in states look to prosecute anyone who's had an abortion or even a miscarriage.
(Here's how you can track your periods without using an app).
In the aftermath of the ruling becoming official, Flo revealed on Twitter that it would soon be unveiling an anonymous mode for its users. “You DESERVE the right to protect your data,” the tweet (opens in new tab) reads. “We will soon be launching an ‘Anonymous Mode’ that removes your personal identity from your Flo account, so that no one can identify you.”
No release date for this addition was provided (despite many anxious responses requesting this important detail), but given the draft opinion on the overturning of Roe v. Wade was leaked at the start of May, it seems likely that this feature has been in the works for at least a month or so.
But Flo has a history when it comes to user privacy. Back in 2019, The Wall Street Journal (opens in new tab) revealed that the app was sharing menstrual cycle data with the likes of Facebook and Google. This was settled with the FTC in 2021 (opens in new tab), and the company claimed it successfully completed a privacy audit (opens in new tab) last month as part of the settlement.
For Clue’s part, the company released a statement (opens in new tab) designed to reassure its users, stating that it operates under strict European GDPR privacy laws ensuring data is “private and safe.”
“Many of us at Clue understand first hand how it feels to fear for our reproductive autonomy,” the statement closes. “While we navigate this new reality, we promise to squarely face the challenges it brings, to listen and do everything we can to make every single Clue user's experience as positive and safe as it can be.”
But even with these reassurances, if you live in a state that's governed by anti-choice legislators and feel suspicious, you’re not alone. "If I lived in a state where abortion was actively being criminalized, I would not use a period tracker — that's for sure,” the University of Edinburgh researcher Andrea Ford told NPR (opens in new tab).
Beyond fertility apps
It’s not just fertility apps that could be strong-armed by an overzealous use of police warrants. “It is very likely that there’s going to be requests made to those tech companies for information related to search histories, to websites visited,” Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation told Reuters (opens in new tab).
It’s in this environment that big tech companies have serious questions to answer about how they approach the new-but-old laws. And while internal company culture and consumer products are two very different things, there are some early signs that both Apple and Google — the two companies behind the overwhelming majority of smartphone operating systems — are uncomfortable with the change.
“This is a profound change for the country that deeply affects so many of us, especially women,” Google’s chief people officer Fiona Cicconi wrote in an email to staffers obtained by The Verge (opens in new tab). “Everyone will respond in their own way, whether that’s wanting space and time to process, speaking up, volunteering outside of work, not wanting to discuss it at all, or something else entirely.”
Reiterating the need to ensure that the company makes “information on reproductive healthcare accessible across our products” while continuing its “work to protect user privacy,” the email also explains that the company will allow staff members to apply for “relocation without justification.”
This is in addition to a health plan that supports out-of-state procedures, a company benefit that Apple has also had for more than 10 years.
“As we’ve said before, we support our employees’ rights to make their own decisions regarding their reproductive health,” Apple told CNBC (opens in new tab).
“For more than a decade, Apple’s comprehensive benefits have allowed our employees to travel out-of-state for medical care if it is unavailable in their home state.”
Also read: How private is your personal data on period-tracking apps?