As soon as Roe v. Wade was overturned on Friday, June 24, calls for people to delete their period-tracking apps were all over social media. These apps gather extremely personal data that could pinpoint a missed period. The fear is that in the hands of law enforcement, this data could be used to bolster a criminal case against a person who attempts to get an abortion in a state where it is restricted or banned.
Understandably, a lot of people are scared and confused. So here’s our guide to what you need to know about period-tracking apps, what the apps’ makers say about their often murky privacy policies, and what alternative methods you can use to track your menstrual cycle that don’t involve handing your data over.
Why use a period tracker?
Stress or dietary changes, among other factors, can make periods irregular and unpredictable. Tracking them can help expose underlying health issues, such as fibroids, which are noncancerous uterine growths. It can also help people spot patterns in mood and energy, which can often be affected by ovulation. People trying to get pregnant often use period trackers to figure out when they’re most fertile.
So why are people panicking?
The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US triggered laws that made abortion illegal in 13 states, and more states are likely to ban abortion in the coming months. In states that have banned abortions, people could now be prosecuted if they are alleged to have had one. The worry is that their digital data footprint could be used to build such a case. Missing your period is not a crime, but evidence of it could be subpoenaed and used to bolster a case against someone suspected of an abortion.
What do companies that make period-tracking apps have to say about this?
We reached out to some of the major period-tracking apps—Flo, Clue, and SpotOn (an app from Planned Parenthood)—for comment on what their privacy settings are and whether they would turn information over to authorities in states where abortion is illegal. Clue and SpotOn did not respond, though Clue stated on Twitter that because it is based in the European Union, it is not permitted to share data with authorities in the US:
“We would have a primary legal duty under European law not to disclose any private health data. We repeat: we would not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of our users’ health data by US authorities. But we would let you and the world know if they tried.”
All this means that the risks of tracking your menstrual cycle via an app may outweigh the benefits, and if you live in a state that has banned abortion or looks likely to ban abortion imminently, you may decide that your safest bet is to stop using this technology. But before you do, here are some things to think about:
1. Put it into perspective. If you live in a state that has banned abortion, you should also pay attention to the other digital traces you might leave. “Period-tracking apps should not be your biggest concern,” says Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist and security researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He says that social media posts, text messages, and Google search history would be a higher priority for authorities seeking to digitally prove an abortion.
2. Before you delete your app, save your information. You’ve got a ton of valuable data and information you don’t want to lose, says Aliza Aufrichtig, who created a spreadsheet template for tracking periods. Either write your information in a notebook or do what Aufrichtig did and enter it into a spreadsheet.
3. After you delete your app, ask the app provider to delete your data. Just because you removed the app from your phone does not mean the company has gotten rid of your records. In fact, California is the only state where they are legally required to delete your data. Still, many companies are willing to delete it upon request. Here’s a helpful guide from the Washington Post that walks you through how you can do this.
Here’s how to safely track your period without an app.
1. Use a spreadsheet. It’s relatively easy to re-create the functions of a period tracker in a spreadsheet by listing out the dates of your past periods and figuring out the average length of time from the first day of one to the first day of the next. You can turn to one of the many templates already available online, like the period tracker created by Aufrichtig and the Menstrual Cycle Calendar and Period Tracker created by Laura Cutler. If you enjoy the science-y aspect of period apps, templates offer the ability to send yourself reminders about upcoming periods, record symptoms, and track blood flow.
2. Use a digital calendar. If spreadsheets make you dizzy and your entire life is on a digital calendar already, try making your period a recurring event, suggests Emory University student Alexa Mohsenzadeh, who made a TikTok video demonstrating the process.
Mohsenzadeh says that she doesn’t miss apps. “I can tailor this to my needs and add notes about how I’m feeling and see if it’s correlated to my period,” she says. “You just have to input it once.”
3. Go analog and use a notebook or paper planner. We’re a technology publication, but the fact is that the safest way to keep your menstrual data from being accessible to others is to take it offline. You can invest in a paper planner or just use a notebook to keep track of your period and how you’re feeling.
If that sounds like too much work, and you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense template, try the free, printable Menstrual Cycle Diary available from the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research.
4. If your state is unlikely to ban abortion, you might still be able to safely use a period-tracking app. The crucial thing will be to choose one that has clear privacy settings and has publicly promised not to share user data with authorities. Quintin says Clue is a good option because it’s beholden to EU privacy laws and has gone on the record with its promise not to share information with authorities.
Humans and technology
The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who never existed
LinkedIn users are being scammed of millions of dollars by fake connections posing as graduates of prestigious universities and employees at top tech companies.
Social media is polluting society. Moderation alone won’t fix the problem
Companies already have the systems in place that are needed to evaluate their deeper impacts on the social fabric.
The fight for “Instagram face”
Meta banned filters that “encourage plastic surgery,” but a massive demand for beauty augmentation on social media is complicating matters.
How the false rumor of a Chinese coup went viral
Dissecting how Indian users and Falun Gong media accounts spread a bogus story far and wide on Twitter.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.