Digital Dragnet Dangers

Overturning Roe v. Wade has a greater impact than I even first realized. Since the decision became official about a week ago, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles discussing the digital side of things. For example, the kinds of apps women use to track their reproductive health issues and location data, are coming under question. Now that abortion is illegal in many areas, there is a concern that data collected on women may be incriminating. This will likely include data that women input in various apps to track their health.

The first time I blogged about a period tracking app, it was in the context of self care. Lots of people love being able to track what’s going on in their bodies. Over the years I’ve tracked lots of things about my body, health, and habits manually. It’s tedious! I can understand the appeal of having apps available to do some of the “heavy lifting.” Being able to analyze patterns and notice trends is a real benefit to tracking. However, I never use self-care apps. I’ve always been nervous about the privacy and protection of the data. Another concern is who might unknowingly access or share the data.

Recently, I’ve read many articles about whether or not women should delete their period tracking apps. The concern is that in places where abortions are illegal, data from these apps could be used. It could be used as evidence about the status of, and activities related to, a women’s reproductive health. For example, is a missed period evidence of a pregnancy, another health issue, or human error? Combining this data with location tracking yields more details about a woman’s activities (e.g., missed period combined with trips to a Planned Parenthood). Even anonymizing the data isn’t enough. There are still ways to discover who it’s about.

Google has decided that they will delete location tracking history for visits to abortion clinics, along with a few other health-related locations. The question I have about this, is why collect it in the first place? Or why not create apps that protect the privacy and data of its users more effectively?

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