How to track your period without compromising your privacy

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Many people find it helpful to keep tabs on their menstrual cycles. Advertisers, employers, health insurers and governments may also want this information.

Last week, a draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked overturning Roe vs Wade raised privacy concerns about health data, including the type we share with period tracking apps. In states where abortion is criminalized, data from menstruation apps can become evidence of a crime.

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

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Why you should be careful with apps

Menstrual tracking apps help people to track their periods, ovulation and pregnancy. What they don’t always do is keep that information to themselves.

Research into the privacy practices of popular period tracking apps has consistently raised concerns. A 2021 report by the International Digital Accountability Council (IDAC) found that menstrual trackers sent unencrypted personal information or shared data with third parties without fully disclosing this in their privacy policies. Period app Flo got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year for “deceptive” practices around its data sharing. Flo says she now “does not share health data” with third parties. IDAC also referred the Premom app to the FTC and other regulators for alleged inconsistencies between its privacy policy and practices, said IDAC President Quentin Palfrey.

Natural Cycles, the first app approved by the Food and Drug Administration for birth control, may collect “sensitive information” tied to your identity, according to its listing on the Apple App Store. Unlike the details you share with a healthcare provider, the health information you deliver to an app is not protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That means it could end up in the hands of data brokers – who collect and sell vast amounts of personal data – insurance companies, employers and even law enforcement.

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Find and track secure apps

Right now, it’s incredibly difficult for people at home to assess the privacy of different period apps and understand where their data is flowing behind the scenes, said Palfrey of IDAC.

There are some secure apps, like Euki, that claim to have stronger privacy protections, according to Farah Diaz-Tello, senior advisor and legal director at If/When/How, a legal advocacy organization. (Actually, Euki says it does not collect personal or other data.) If you are considering an app, please read the privacy policies – can this app 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 could still become a liability if the police obtain your device. If you’re concerned about law enforcement accessing your phone in general, use a password instead of fingerprint or Face ID to lock it down. “Users should be careful sharing information with third-party applications that they wouldn’t want to fall into the wrong hands,” Palfrey said.

Use your phone’s health app

Fortunately, third-party apps aren’t the only options for tracking your cycle on a phone. Both Apple and Google have period tracking options built into their mobile health apps that offer more privacy protections than the apps sold in their app stores.

On iPhones and iPads, 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. Data is encrypted. There is an option to back up to iCloud, however, as with anything encrypted in this way, the company has the ability to turn the data over to the authorities. For maximum privacy, you can disable Health access in iCloud settings, but don’t forget to save a copy on your phone. Apple also offers the ability to sync data with third-party apps, but the same precautions apply here when using any external apps.

Google doesn’t have the same kind of built-in safe health app. What it does offer is Google Fit, an app born from the purchase of fitness tracking company FitBit. It includes options for tracking data like period and ovulation test results, but Google’s privacy policy isn’t as clear on how it’s protected or used. Approach it as carefully as you would third-party apps.

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

Any spreadsheet where you can enter the dates of the first and last day of your period should work. If you are using the sheet to track ovulation and fertility, leave space to note your temperature and body fluids as well. Planned Parenthood has a guide for anyone new to these fertility screening methods, known as fertility awareness methods (FAMs).

The Internet has downloadable templates for tracking the period in Excel. The safest way to use one of these spreadsheets is to save it to your computer or phone and make it password protected so only you can open it.

You use online calendars to keep track of everything in your life, why not your period? Calendars on your computer are often synced across multiple devices and may not be the safest place to put sensitive health information. As they are not using data for targeted ads, they may be an improvement over some apps. However, if you use one to track your period and you are concerned, you can use code or emoji to mark the dates. You can also turn a spreadsheet into a calendar for all the sweet formatting with a little extra security.

Old fashioned pen and paper

When in doubt, you can always track your cycle on a notebook or analog calendar.

“The only equipment you need is paper, a pen, a calendar and a 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 fertility periods, and no one can take your data.”

She recommends tracking the first and last days of your period to get an idea of ​​your average cycle over time and even note when you have sex and if you’re protected.

People don’t have to hand over their phones and other devices if the police ask, experts say. And those who want to chat with friends and family about their reproductive health or seek out extra information on the Internet can opt for encrypted messengers and privacy browsers.

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If you are using a menstrual tracking app and are concerned about the storage of your data, please submit a data deletion request. This right only applies to people who live in states with extra privacy protections, such as California, but some companies say they will fulfill these requests from people anywhere.

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