PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In light of the leaked opinion draft by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, people might be wondering how using specific apps could put them at risk if abortion rights are overturned.
The leaked draft was first reported by Politico last week. KOIN 6 News spoke with two professors at different Oregon universities to try and understand how people’s data on menstrual tracking apps could be used against them if the draft is finalized by the Supreme Court.
Those apps are used by people with periods to track flow, consistency and other variables in regard to their cycles.
Dr. Wu-Chang Feng, a professor of computer science at Portland State University, said this is a “brave new world” with the data economy with people monetizing data and sharing it in unintended ways with little regulation. More specifically, what data apps collect and what those apps share with other people.
“If you allow the application to access your location, they can collect that and then monitor where you’re going,” said Feng. “If a particular period tracker is monitoring your geographic location as well, if you have allowed that application that particular access, then, yeah, you could take that data stream and piece together that behavior that they’re going to go to this particular clinic at this particular time.”
He called the possibility “concerning” because people are not aware this data could be used against them if abortion rights are overturned at a federal level.
As an expert in cybersecurity, Feng doesn’t have a lot of applications on his phone. However, he does install apps for his health care provider or his bank because it’s a mutual agreement that any personal information leaking from the application would compromise both parties.
“You have to think about when you download an app, do my goals align with the application provider’s goal? Yes or no?” Feng said.
Colin Koopman, a philosophy professor who specializes in data security at the University of Oregon, echoed the same concern regarding data and period tracking apps. Koopman said the Supreme Court leak ‘raised the bar’ on visibility problems some women were already aware of.
“App developers put a lot of time and money into making us look past their applications on how the data gets stored, where it gets stored and who it gets sent to in the terms of service,” Koopman said. “This raises the visibility of why that has always been important and is potentially of much greater importance going forward.”
The professor added that the data is mostly sought by marketers for targeted advertising but can be used by enforcers through new laws or social customs in a changing legal landscape.
For example, a person who uses marijuana in state where consumption is allowed but then moves to a state where marijuana is illegal. Theoretically, an enforcement agency could acquire data to know your relationship with marijuana and if your location was ever at marijuana dispensaries in those states, noted Koopman.
The same theory could apply to data showing someone’s cycle stopping a particular month and then three days later making a visit to a clinic providing abortion services out of state if their location is being tracked.
“The phones don’t contain actual facts of things that people are always concerned with, but they do often contain pieces of evidence that make inferences on that basis and sometimes encourage people to make inferences on what a person has done,” he noted.
Should people use these period tracking apps?
Feng said it’s hard to put himself in the shoes of people who use the applications to track their menstrual cycle but encourages people to understand the risk when using similar applications. He asks for others to question how the company is making money.
If the company asks for you to purchase the app, then that’s how they’re keeping the operation going, he said. If not? He suggests looking into how much of your information is shared to the app.
Feng said free apps most likely are going to monetize your data by collecting information and trying to deliver you targeted advertisements.
He hopes there can one day be overarching federal regulation – similar to the European Union with the General Data Protection Regulation – to let people tell companies to delete all of their data.
Until then, people will have to weigh their risk when using period tracker apps now or until the Supreme Court announces its final decision on whether to overturn Roe v Wade.