How to track your period without comprising your privacy



An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Natural Cycles application had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It was FDA approved, not approved. The article has been corrected.

With an app for menstrual tracking, you can see when your periods and fertile days begin and end. And because these applications leave a digital trail, other people can see as well.

With 13 states ready to ban abortion after a Friday Supreme Court ruling that overturned the right to get one, many are concerned that data from period apps could become evidence of a crime. Some people delete the applications; others send requests to delete data to the companies they run. And while actual reproductive health data may not be the only way law enforcement or other prying eyes can conclude that someone has had an abortion, cutting back on sharing personal data can become a habit for women in post-Roe v. Wade America absent actions of technology companies or the government to protect them.

If you want to track your menstrual cycle without sharing that information with companies, your employer or possibly law enforcement, here’s something to keep in mind, say privacy and health experts.

Your phone may reveal if you have had an abortion

Why you should be careful with applications

Menstrual tracking programs help people keep track of their periods, ovulation and pregnancies. What they do not always do is keep that information to themselves.

Research on the privacy practices of popular time-tracking applications has been a constant concern. A 2021 report by the International Digital Accountability Council (IDAC) found that trackers periodically send unencrypted personal information or share data with third parties without disclosing it in full in their privacy policies. The period app Flo got into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year for “fraudulent” practices surrounding its data sharing. Flo says it “does not share health data” now with any third party. IDAC also referred the Premom app to the FTC and other regulators for alleged inconsistencies between its privacy policies and practices, IDAC President Quentin Palfrey said.

Premom did not respond to a request for comment.

Natural Cycles, the first application ever cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for birth control, can collect “sensitive information” linked to your identity, according to the list in the Apple App Store.

“The protection of user data has always been a top priority for Natural Cycles and as sensitive data becomes more sensitive, we will continue to ensure that every user’s data is safe with us. We have never – and never will – sell user data. And as we face potential legal changes, we will develop our privacy policies to ensure our users are protected from unthinkable potential legal situations, ”Natural Cycles co-founder and CEO Elina Berglund said in a statement.

Unlike details you share with a healthcare provider, the health information you provide to an application is not protected by the Health Insurance Transferability and Liability Act (HIPAA). This means that it could end up in the hands of data brokers – who collect and sell heaps of personal data – insurers, employers and even law enforcement.

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Find and screen secure applications

At the moment, it is incredibly difficult for people at home to evaluate the privacy of different period applications and understand where their data flows behind the scenes, IDAC’s Palfrey said.

There are some secure applications like Euki, which claim to have stronger privacy protections, according to Farah Diaz-Tello, senior adviser and legal director at If / When / How, an advocacy organization. (Indeed, Euki says it does not collect any personal or other data.) If you are considering an application, read the privacy policies – can this application share data with “partners”, “affiliates” or “third parties”? You want apps that encrypt your data and store it on your device instead of in the cloud, if possible.

Any digital data stored on your phone may still become a liability if law enforcement acquires your device. If you are concerned about law enforcement’s access to your phone in general, use a password instead of fingerprint or Face ID to lock it. “Users need to be careful about sharing information with third-party applications that they do not want in the wrong hands,” Palfrey said.

Use your phone’s health app

Fortunately, third-party applications are not the only options to track your cycle on a phone. Both Apple and Google have built time tracking options into their mobile health apps that offer more privacy protection than the apps sold in their app stores.

On iPhones, the Health app has basic cycle tracking that includes period and fertility predictions. It can record sensitive information about your body, including sexual activity, pregnancy test results, and various symptoms. The data is encrypted. There is an option to back it up to iCloud, but as with anything encrypted in this way, the company does have the ability to transfer data to law enforcement unless you have two-factor authentication enabled for your Apple ID , according to Apple. You also have the option to turn off Health Access in your iCloud settings, but make sure you save a copy on your phone. Apple also offers the ability to synchronize the data with third-party applications, but the same precautions apply here as when using any external application.

Google does not have the same kind of secure health program built into it. What it does offer is Google Fit, launched in 2014, which includes options to track data such as menstrual and ovulation test results, but Google’s privacy policy is not as clear about how it is protected or used. Approach it with the same caution as third-party programs would.

Google’s privacy settings to change now

Somewhere between a complete application and a piece of paper, spreadsheets stored on your device and not linked to the cloud are a private option for period tracking. Spreadsheets can include formulas that do some of the calculations for you.

Any spreadsheet where you can enter the dates of the first and last day of your period should do the thing. If you use the sheet to detect ovulation and fertility, leave room to also pay attention to your temperature and body fluids. Planned Parenthood has a guide for anyone who is new to these methods of fertility detection, known as Fertility Awareness Methods (FAMs).

The internet has downloadable templates for period tracking in Excel. The safest way to use one of these spreadsheets is to save it on your computer or phone and password protect it so that only you can access it.

You use online calendars to track everything else in your life, why not your period? Calendars on your computer are usually synced between multiple devices and may not be the safest place to post sensitive health information. Because they do not use data for targeted ads, this can be a step higher than some applications. However, if you use one to track your period and are worried, you can use code or emoji to mark the dates. You can also turn a spreadsheet into a calendar for all the lovely formatting with a little more security.

Old-fashioned pen and paper

If in doubt, you can always track your cycle in a notebook or analogue calendar, if you are not worried that someone close to you will find it.

“The only equipment you need is a paper, pen, calendar, and thermometer,” said Karen Jefferson, director of midwifery practice at the American College of Nurse-Midwives. “You can find out everything about your cycle and your periods of fertility, and no one can take your data.”

She recommends marking the first and last day of your period to get an idea of ​​your average cycle over time, and even write down when you have sex and whether it is protected.

People do not have to turn their phones and other devices around when law enforcers ask for it, experts say. And those who want to talk to friends and family about their reproductive health or search the Internet for extra information can opt for encrypted messengers and privacy browsers.

Which messaging apps and browsers are the most private?

If you have used a timeline tracking application and are concerned that it is storing your data, you can submit a data deletion request. This right only applies to people living in states with extra privacy protection, such as California, but some companies say they will comply with these requests from people everywhere.

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