Period tracking apps and digital privacy - what you need to know

Femtech – technology created for women's health has become a big market opportunity because there is still a lot of untapped demand. This technology ranges from female health and wellness to fertility trackers to physical period products. Perhaps one of the most well-known technologies are period tracking apps.

Period tracking apps came under fire after the turn of Roe v. Wade in the US last June, with several activists encouraging users to delete their apps. Was this panic-induced paranoia, or should you actually care about it? How it turns out depends on where you live.

In Europe, your health data privacy is protected under the GDPR. The co-CEOs of Clue, a Berlin-based developer of a period tracker, even released a statement with the purpose of putting their users´ minds at ease. If you happen to be living in the US or just want to be more active in protecting your digital privacy, there are a couple of things you should be looking out for:

  • Data is the bottom line and the more targeted it is, the more valuable it is for advertisers. Unless you have a paid subscription on your period tracking app, the primary way they make money “when you use them for free” is by sharing your data. 
  • Check if your app stores data locally on your phone or in the cloud. You are more protected if the information is stored on your phone . Apps that store data locally are preferable because when data is stored locally, the user owns it — not the company.
  • Read Apple's Privacy Nutrition Labels , which are designed to show users how their data is used in simpler terms.

Some period tracking apps ask a lot of extensive questions like what kind of vitamins you take, how is your skin, hair, weight, how often you have sex and if it was unprotected or not. All this information is a gold mine for third-party data purchasers because the targeted advertising can be extremely fine-tuned .

A couple of examples of the questions asked on period tracking apps. left: Eve period tracker; right: Flo Health)

People trying to get pregnant are particularly targeted because their purchasing habits will radically change as soon as they have a baby. They will spend more because they will have more mouths to feed and will buy a new variety of products they weren't spending money on before.

Often, when privacy experts try to raise awareness about the danger and consequences of having your data shared without your knowledge or understanding of who's receiving it, the harm can seem somewhat abstract. But if there ever was a concrete precedent of the harm, a perfect example is the case of the mother and daughter in Nebraska who face abortion charges because Facebook handed their private data to the police. You can read more about their story here .

There are many ways our data is processed by third parties to influence our behaviour, and it's really hard to track what's going on or who has access to it. So if you want to be extra careful in this specific arena, it might be time to switch back to analogue period tracking on a paper calendar.