Your App Knows You Got Your Period. Guess Who It Told?

Bill Mount

Privacy experts said the Flo case could cause wider user mistrust of women’s health apps. “It’s become even more cynical than just ‘buyer beware,’” Deven McGraw, the chief regulatory officer of Ciitizen, a company that helps people gain access to and control their health information, said of consumer health apps. […]

Privacy experts said the Flo case could cause wider user mistrust of women’s health apps.

“It’s become even more cynical than just ‘buyer beware,’” Deven McGraw, the chief regulatory officer of Ciitizen, a company that helps people gain access to and control their health information, said of consumer health apps. “You did your homework. You read this app’s privacy policy. You thought you were putting your data in a trusted place. And turns out that the company didn’t take its obligation seriously.”

Flo certainly isn’t the only app accused of mishandling intimate data. In 2019, Privacy International, a nonprofit group in Britain, studied a number of popular period-tracking apps s and reported that two of them transmitted sensitive information — such as details on users’ symptoms and contraceptive use — to Facebook and other companies.

Over the last two years, lawmakers and state attorneys general in the U.S. have begun scrutinizing period-tracking and fertility apps. Last March, several members of Congress sent letters to Apple and Google asking the companies to remove any period trackers that collected users’ health data without obtaining their explicit permission, in an attempt to place more responsibility on the gatekeepers.

In the European Union, the onus is squarely on app developers, giving consumers broad rights to control their data. In particular, a comprehensive E.U. law — called the General Data Protection Regulation — typically requires companies to obtain explicit permission before collecting or sharing sensitive personal information like health details.

Deceptive data mining, misleading privacy policies and other troubling practices do not negate the need for women’s health apps. But regulators going after leaky apps, one by one, doesn’t give consumers much confidence or clarity either.

What’s needed, experts suggest, is a new regulatory framework that enables health care providers and researchers to work with consumer apps to better understand women’s health, whether it’s symptoms, medications or different responses to disease.

Until recently, women have been underrepresented in medical research, clinical trials for drugs and vaccines, and even biology textbooks, leaving health care providers with large blind spots in their understanding of and ability to care for women’s bodies, which often have very different needs and responses than men’s bodies.

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