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Cycle tracking apps and data security

Large computer server processing data
Large computer server processing data

Cycle tracking apps, or “Menstruapps” are the most popular type of health app, with over 200 available in the App Store. These apps claim to offer more freedom, convenience and peace of mind when it comes to understanding your cycle - but can users really rest easy when their most intimate data is potentially being sold to third parties?

While the FemTech market is getting the funding and revitalisation it has desperately needed in the form of cycle tracking apps, there have been dark revelations about cybersecurity concerns.

These cycle trackers allow users to record when they start their period, the level of flow, their mood on each day of their cycle, when they have sex, when they have an orgasm, what their bowel movements are and how their stools look, acne levels, what their temperature is and what medications they’re taking, to name a few. Many also allow for personal diary entries each day for users to provide context, make mental notes, or actually journal.

What I’m trying to show is, these apps carry some of your most personal and intimate information.

The market has been flooded with these newly-funded Mestruapps, with many claiming they’ve attempted to fill the need of personalisation for each individual user. A pregnant person wants different features in their app than a menopausal woman, or someone trying to avoid pregnancy, etc.

The issue is, some of these apps are widening their features to the point of being able to make money by sharing your personal period data. An article by Vox described this element of the revolution in women’s health apps as “the golden age of menstrual surveillance… great for men, marketers and medical companies.”

Despite their so-called efforts, most tracking apps are a “one-size fits all” layout, not even allowing women to factor in other circumstances, such as a pregnancy ending, without rendering all of their previous period data void because the app can’t recalculate after. This generic recipe is the result of the male-dominated corporate world who have a basic understanding of periods seeing a need (and money-making opportunity), but not actually filling it.

In fact, these cookie-cutter apps are the perfect setup for gathering fundamental information about a user to personalise the advertisements within the already glitchy app. For example, if your tracking app knows you’re wanting to fall pregnant, you’ll find that the advertisements appearing each time you navigate within the app to be pregnancy and baby related brands or products.

For many of these cycle tracking apps, there is little to no regulation on data sharing. The only app that appears to have some regulation is the app Clue. The CEO of Clue, Ida Tin, has said that she strongly opposes targeted advertisements, deeming them to be invasive. However, while Clue’s terms of service allow the data provided by users to be shared with academic researchers, they haven’t explicitly excluded commercial use.

Clue was created in Germany, where data protection laws have shaped the app to have above average protection for users. A key factor in keeping user data private is that Clue is one of the very few apps that don’t require an account, storing data on the user’s device, rather than the app’s servers. If users opt for an account, data on menstruation is kept separate from personal data on the servers, and anything sent to researchers is sent in an anonymous form. Finally, Clue’s interface is ad free, meaning no glitchy pop-ups or targeted ads within the app.

Before rushing to download Clue, be aware that there are assumptions and implications made by the app’s interface that are just as disappointing as the rest. While avoiding the hyper-feminine pink and sparkly aesthetic, the icons chosen to represent protected / unprotected sex, mood, etc. are almost just as harmful, with most of the apps features only tailored to straight cisgender females. The binary oversimplification of sexuality and intimacy within cycle tracking apps often leaves people feeling excluded and isolated, as these apps cannot take into account the multifaceted experience of having a period. Sadly, Clue isn’t as advanced in this area as they are in cybersecurity.

The main takeaways are these: none of the period tracking apps on the market can account for the complexity of the menstrual cycle or human experience, and are nowhere near as reliable or confidential as your medical practitioner.

Nearly all of the apps have unregulated data sharing with businesses and researchers, and even those with regulations leave at least some of your data at risk of being shared or stolen. Even if you’re just tracking your period to establish patterns for yourself, you’ll never be the only person to see your data.

The FemTech industry and its latest growth in the area of period trackers has little to do with the industry becoming more “pro-woman”, and more to do with the monetisation of our valuable period data for commercial purposes.

The need for being able to understand our bodies has been met with basic applications that don’t share the same goal as its users, with the intent behind their creation being to tap into the marketing potential period tracking possesses.

At the end of the day, its extremely difficult to quantify the human experience of having a period and all the factors involved in it. Using a period app going forward may still be a useful resource for learning about your body, but keep in mind there is no guarantee that your data will stay private.