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“Data can be used against women in abortion lawsuits”

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The news that the US Supreme Court is threatening to overturn the abortion law has women who use menstrual apps worried. These apps can reveal when someone is pregnant or has been pregnant. Caution is also required in Europe, says researcher Rob Heyman (VUB).

At the beginning of May, the American news site Politico published a draft opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States, which shows that the Court wants to abolish the right to abortion guaranteed by the Constitution. If that happens, every state in the United States will soon be able to decide whether or not to allow abortion.

“Anyone who can get pregnant should work on their digital safety now,” activist Erin Matson tweeted earlier this week. Matson is co-founder of Reproaction, an action group fighting for abortion rights. “Your period and fertility app or research may seem non-existent at the moment big deal, but they can be used against you from July. The Court’s decision is expected in July.

Handy tool

Millions of menstruating people around the world use apps to monitor their fertility cycle. These apps are a useful tool for those who want to get pregnant or are trying to avoid it. Apps obviously need very personal information for this. When did the user have her period? What physical symptoms accompanied it? Has the user had unprotected sex? With this data and with the help of artificial intelligence, the applications search a large data set for patterns that help predict the fertile period of women.

In the past, this data has proven to be a gold mine for advertisers. In 2019, for example, Privacy International discovered that popular menstrual apps Maya and MIA, among others, were automatically sharing sensitive user data with Facebook in order to link strategic ads to it. They did this from the moment a user installed and opened the app, even before that person accepted the privacy policy.

Even chocolate commercials can be adapted to menstrual cycles.

Advertisers can use this information to reach their target audience in a very targeted way. For example, they show ads for acne creams to women who indicate in the app that they have it. Or they run diaper ads to pregnant women. Even chocolate commercials can be adapted to menstrual cycles.

Evidence

This lax manipulation of menstrual app data without user consent is nothing new. But this laxity could become even more dangerous if some states soon criminalize abortion. The women fear that this poorly protected data will soon also become evidence in the lawsuits against them.

“Investigating judges in the United States have already requested data from the apps to support the allegations”

Rob Heyman, coordinator of the Data & Society Knowledge Center and researcher at imec-SMIT (VUB)

“These women are rightly concerned,” says Rob Heyman, who coordinates the Data & Society Knowledge Center at the imec-SMIT research group (VUB). “Investigating judges in the United States have already requested data from apps to support their claims. In states where abortion becomes illegal, data on menstrual cycles can certainly begin to play a role in criminal cases.

US privacy advocates are therefore calling on developers of menstruation and fertility apps to consider how data from these apps may be used or misused in the future. “Anyone working with reproductive health data needs to think about what data they collect, where they store it, and how long it stays there,” said technology expert Cooper Quintin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF ) in the US earlier this month on the BBC.

Unacceptable from an ethical and legal point of view

In the European Union, data from menstruation and fertility apps are better protected. This is thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), better known by its English abbreviation GDPR. Nevertheless, recent research from the University of Zurich shows that the apps also violate privacy rules here. According to the researchers, the apps they examined fail to meet basic standards for data privacy, exchange and security, which they call “ethically and legally unacceptable”.

Heyman confirms this conclusion. “Under the GDPR, there’s a long list of rules apps have to comply with and it’s true that developers still make mistakes,” he says. “As a user, you will then have to find out exactly what they are wrong with. Often apps do not have a clear privacy statement or indicate where the data is stored. And in theory, you run the same risks in Europe as you do in the US However, Heyman considers it unlikely that law enforcement agencies in Europe will use the data, precisely because it is prohibited by law.

Tips for the user

What can you do yourself to secure your data?

Heyman recommends choosing apps that store your data locally (on your own device). “That way the developer can’t access your data, even if they wanted to or if a private company or government agency asked for it,” he says. In addition, you can also pay attention to the storage period of your data. “The rule is: the shorter, the better,” says Heyman. “You might be wondering what is the added value of data retained for years.”

Finally, European privacy legislation also guarantees the right to be forgotten. Heyman: “If you delete an application, you can ask the developer to delete all your personal data from its central servers. Be sure to use this right.

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