Science and technology

As the Roe v. Wade reversal has materialised in the US, the right to abortion for women has become a hot topic worldwide. Pro-life and pro-choice camps have defended their opinions in both the social media and street demonstrations in several countries.

Whatever women’s opinion would be on termination of pregnancy, almost everyone agrees that sexuality and reproduction are private matters.

Criminalisation of abortion however takes the legitimate concerns regarding data privacy of period trackers to a much higher level. Cybersecurity experts warn that data collected from these apps could be potentially used to penalise anyone seeking an abortion, if subpoenaed or sold to a third party.

This debate also draws attention to how sensitive information collected in other health trackers, loyalty apps, and even utility apps, could end up in the hands of data-brokers.

App-stores are loaded with apps that put your privacy at risk. It was recently revealed that a wide range of apps with access to users’ private information transmit or resell that to the so called “data-brokers” who in turn sell it to advertisers and sometimes even other entities and institutions, including law enforcement and intelligence services.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you open a new website there is a very brief moment that the top banner is missing? Then it appears on a blank placeholder or pushing down the content of the page. In that very brief moment, the site is negotiating with numerous advertisers who are bidding for your eyes based on the data gathered about you. If that digital and extremely fast bidding was reconstructed as a real world auction, it would be something like this:

Auctioneer: Middle aged gay man living in suburban Frankfurt, Germany, working in marketing, driving a WV Passat, has a dog, travels 2 times a year for vacation to far east, and among others, is considering a hair transplant.

Thousands of bids are put in a fraction of a second and a Hair transplant clinic in Istanbul wins the space. User is shown a banner which he may most probably click on.

The information the auctioneer provides is in reality much, much more than the excerpt above. Algorithms have developed so rapidly, that they can even predict purchasing habits, marriages, divorces and sicknesses.

Period trackers and other health data apps are however gathering one of the most intimate categories of information about their users.

Millions of people use these apps to help track their menstrual cycles. Clue, claims to have12 million monthly active users. Flo, which claims to be the most popular period and cycle tracking app, has 43 million active users.

Last year, Flo reached a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission amid allegations that it misled users about the disclosure of their personal health data. In 2019 Wall Street Journal revealed in an investigation that the app informed Facebook when a user was having their period or intended to get pregnant.

Flo did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement, but, the FTC said the app must undergo an independent review of its privacy policy and obtain user permissions before sharing personal health information.

The risks are thus ranging from mild privacy issues to actual incrimination and prosecution.

As privacy policies and user agreements of apps increase in length to an impossible-to-read extend, users have to look at other ways of protecting their privacy and in case of new abortion laws, their actual freedom.

One of the most practical ways of protecting one’s privacy online is the use of VPN services which can conceal your privacy by rerouting your internet connection. Your IP address is your digital identification online and when used properly, the VPN service will make you anonymous.

Paul Costner
Helsinki Times