women’s health apps

Privacy alert for women: Are health apps compromising your data?

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PUREVPNPrivacy alert for women: Are health apps compromising your data?

Your pregnancy and period-tracking apps aren’t all as private as you may think.

A review published in JMIR showed that some of the most downloaded apps for women’s health do not meet basic data privacy standards and pose a risk to their online privacy. It analyzed 16 apps focusing on menstrual and reproductive cycle tracking and seven related to mental health, cancer, abortion, and fitness – and the result was alarming, to say the least.

Researchers found that all 23 apps used behavioral tracking, which means they tracked users’ online activity for targeted advertisements and messaging. In addition, only 16 apps displayed a privacy policy and only a dozen asked users for consent. Three of the apps started collecting user data even before obtaining permission to do so. Meanwhile, only 13 offered information on data security. 

Given that there are more pregnancy apps in the world than for any other medical condition, these numbers posed a disturbing question: Are women’s health apps safeguarding the well-being of their users or betraying their trust by compromising their privacy? 

What data do most health apps collect on women?

While it may vary with each health app for women, here’s the data they typically collect:

  • Name 
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • IP address
  • Cookies
  • Details of partners and children
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ovulation and menstrual cycle
  • Sexual activity 
  • Pregnancy plans
  • Contraceptive history
  • Abortion history
  • Sleep cycle
  • Health conditions
  • Medications
  • Dietary restrictions
  • Fitness level 
  • Heart rate
  • Traffic data 

Do apps share women’s health data with third parties?

The short answer is yes, they do.

While disinformation remains a massive issue with pregnancy and other women’s health apps, several research studies and lawsuits have highlighted how many femtech apps, which are supposed to help women take control of their health, are not transparent about their data-sharing practices. 

For instance, in 2021, Flo – a popular period and fertility tracking app with more than 100 million users – settled with the Federal Trade Commission(FTC) over allegations that it shared the sensitive health data of its users, including their pregnancy plans and period dates, with third-party firms, including Facebook and Google. What made it worse was that Flo had told its users that their information would remain private. 

A year prior, Glow – another highly rated fertility and ovulation tracking app – had paid $250,000 in settlement over alleged data privacy and security failures.

The 2022 JMIR report also stated that out of the 23 apps it analyzed, more than 60% tracked user location, while over 90% shared user data with third parties.

How does this data sharing affect women?

Imagine telling your gynecologist something personal only for them to share it with others without your explicit permission. It’s a disturbing thought, isn’t it? Similarly, women’s health apps selling confidential data to marketers and third-party brokers are not only a gross invasion of privacy but can also cause emotional and physical damage to the victim. 

Here are some of the potential implications of data sharing for women:

Privacy breaches and identity theft

When apps for women’s health sell sensitive user data to advertisers and third parties, it significantly increases the risk of online privacy breaches and identity theft. It is important to understand that malicious actors can exploit information related to medical conditions, fertility tracking, and abortion history to blackmail or impersonate a person. 

Discrimination and persecution

Women already face a lot of discrimination for their personal choices, and the stolen data from health apps can add to their troubles. In the post-Roe vs. Wade world, women’s rights groups have expressed concerns that law enforcement agencies can use confidential data collected from these health apps to prosecute women seeking abortions. In addition, such data can also lead to social stigma, harassment, and denial of job opportunities.

Intrusive advertising

By selling sensitive user information to data brokers, women’s health apps make it easier for marketers to target people with intrusive advertising and aggressive promotion. For example, pregnant women are more likely to see advertisements for maternity clothes and baby products after sharing their data with a health app. Similarly, those struggling with infertility may suddenly start seeing a lot of ads for expensive fertility medications and treatments. 

Insurance premium hikes and coverage denial

If insurance companies get a hold of the data shared by women’s health apps, they can use the information to raise insurance premiums for the users. Not only that, but they may also deny coverage to certain users based on their medical history, as the app data could indicate their likelihood of developing certain conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases and breast cancer. 

Apps and websites can face fines and lawsuits if they fail to follow applicable data privacy laws. However, despite these rules and regulations, many apps continue to participate in such practices. One of the main reasons why most of them don’t get into any trouble is that most users are not fully aware that their personal information could be shared without their permission. This not only undermines women’s autonomy over their sensitive data but also damages their trust in the healthcare system.

How to maintain your privacy while using a health app?

Here are some steps one can take to maintain online privacy while using a women’s health app:

Review the app’s privacy policies

Before signing up for a health app, consider reviewing its privacy policy and terms of service. Although it is quite tempting to click on ‘I agree’ and move to the next step, please take a few minutes to read how the app collects and stores your data. Moreover, look for information on data anonymization and if it is shared with third parties. It is always a good idea to choose apps that have transparent privacy practices.

Only use reputable apps

It is recommended to download and install apps for women’s health that are developed by reputable companies or organizations. Consider going through the reviews and selecting apps with high ratings and a large user base. Popular apps with substantial reviews and users often invest more in privacy protection measures. 

Understand data privacy laws

One way to protect your privacy in the digital world is to gain an understanding of data privacy laws. When you download an app, look into its data-sharing practices and find out if it shared certain information with third parties for research or other purposes. If the app allows, consider opting out of the data-sharing option. 

Use strong passwords

Practicing good password hygiene can help protect your online privacy. So, safeguard your digital footprint by using strong and unique passwords for your apps. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) if available, as it adds an extra layer of security to your online presence. 

Using a premium password manager such as PureKeep can help you generate complex passwords and keep them in a secure vault. 

Regularly review app permissions

Periodically reviewing the permissions granted to the app on your device is yet another good practice. Users should check which data their health apps can access and disable unnecessary permissions to camera, microphone, location, or contacts, as they are ‌not related to the core functionality of the service. 

Apart from health apps, you should also review privacy settings for your social media apps. A cutting-edge privacy manager such as PurePrivacy can help you review the permissions you have granted to different platforms and even block online trackers that could potentially breach your online privacy. 

Furthermore, if you are worried about data brokers already having a hold of your information, PurePrivacy can help you reclaim your privacy with a few taps on your mobile screen.

Remember, maintaining privacy is a shared responsibility between users and app developers. While taking these steps can enhance privacy, it’s essential to remain cautious and continuously evaluate the women’s health apps you use to protect your confidential information.

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