Huge news for menstruation trackers on the lam: You can now bleed freely without having to worry about Big Data collecting your health information to prosecute you for having a miscarriage. Period tracker app Flo has introduced a new feature, aptly named “Anonymous Mode,” that allows users to disconnect their personal information, like their name and email address, from their health data. This is the first femtech app to offer this option.
Flo told the Verge that it began developing “Anonymous Mode” in May, after the leaked draft opinion showed the Supreme Court was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade. The feature was fast-tracked in June, when the court officially ruled to end federal abortion protection—and period tracking app users everywhere grew concerned that their reproductive data could be used against them. Experts don’t believe law enforcement will request data from these apps to track or prosecute abortions; but, as an enthusiastic “deny all cookies” button presser, any action towards less data tracking is a big thumbs up for me.
Using a system called Oblivious HTTP, Flo can separate a user’s health data from their IP address so the app is unable to trace where any pieces of data came from. Users have to opt into Anonymous Mode, which has a few caveats: If you lose your phone, you can’t recover any of your information if you re-download the app on a new device. Also, because of how the data is stored, they can’t connect the app to a wearable device. These all feel like small sacrifices that are worth the protection.
“The world is not designed for privacy,” Roman Bugaev, chief technology officer at Flo, told the Verge. “We need to rethink all of the internet with this in mind.”
Great idea. Because while Flo’s Anonymous Mode is a step in the right direction, the company has, very recently, come under fire for privacy violations. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission alleged that Flo shared users’ data with third-party analytics companies like Google and Facebook. Flo settled with the FTC and denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to notify any users whose information was disclosed. They also must notify any third parties that received the information to destroy it. You hear that, Mark? Sergey?
Period tracking apps collect much more than your heaviest flow days. They collect information like what forms of birth control you use, how often you’re having sex, if you want to be having sex, your location, recent purchases you’ve made, and other online activity. The app might help demystify why you’re sobbing in the Target self-checkout line (cute photo of a baby monkey on a tabloid) but it also knows that during your luteal phase you Googled “how to quit job,” and searched Youtube for “And I Am Telling You song Dreamgirls best performance.” That is the sort of data they provide to research institutes that then, in turn, tell your company to not play emotional elevator music that’s going to make you want to leave your job.
Flo, which boasts 200 million downloads and 48 million active users, doesn’t share or sell user data, but it does provide aggregated and anonymous data to research institutes and universities. Their decision to prioritize users’ safety concerns will hopefully influence other companies to follow suit.
The new feature is a great step in allowing users to figure out what size tampon to use without Big Data sending you targeted ads for medical-grade jumbo tampons. In the current landscape of privacy concerns, data exploitation, and attacks on bodily autonomy, any sort of extra protection—even for folks not using any in the bedroom—is welcome.