The Age of 'Menstrual Surveillance' Is Upon Us

Image: AP

What kind of things do you want your boss to know about you? Incredibly intimate details about your fertility cycle and whether or not your pregnancy is considered high-risk, maybe? Well, I have good news. The Washington Post reports that pregnancy-tracking app Ovia “has become a powerful monitoring tool for employers and health insurers, which under the banner of corporate wellness have aggressively pushed to gather more data about their workers’ lives than ever before.” Creepy.

While employers don’t have access to your individual data, they can pay Ovia Health for aggregated data stripped of personally identifying information that goes straight to their human resources department.

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This is what that looks like, per the Post:

Like millions of women, Diana Diller was a devoted user of the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia, logging in every night to record new details on a screen asking about her bodily functions, sex drive, medications and mood. When she gave birth last spring, she used the app to chart her baby’s first online medical data — including her name, her location and whether there had been any complications — before leaving the hospital’s recovery room.

But someone else was regularly checking in, too: her employer, which paid to gain access to the intimate details of its workers’ personal lives, from their trying-to-conceive months to early motherhood. Diller’s bosses could look up aggregate data on how many workers using Ovia’s fertility, pregnancy and parenting apps had faced high-risk pregnancies or gave birth prematurely; the top medical questions they had researched; and how soon the new moms planned to return to work.

“We are in a women’s health crisis, and it’s impacting people’s lives and their children’s lives,” said Ovia chief executive Paris Wallace. “But it’s also impacting the folks who are responsible for these outcomes—both financially and for the health of the members they’re accountable for.” Wallace says that the company abides by privacy laws and, while the information is sensitive, overall it can help people—and their employers—take care of their needs.

While “menstrual surveillance,” as critics call it, is offered under the guise of wellness, it’s naive to think that your corporate overlords and app developers want this data simply to make your pregnancy a better or safer experience. As Cornell University assistant professor Karen Levy, who has researched family and workplace monitoring, said to the Post: “What could possibly be the most optimistic, best-faith reason for an employer to know how many high-risk pregnancies their employees have? So they can put more brochures in the break room?”

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“The real benefit of self-tracking is always to the company,” she said. “People are being asked to do this at a time when they’re incredibly vulnerable and may not have any sense where that data is being passed.”

And what else does Ovia do with all that data? A spokeswoman said the company does not sell aggregate data to advertisers, but check out the “terms of use”:

But women who use Ovia must consent to its 6,000-word “terms of use,” which grant the company a “royalty-free, perpetual, and irrevocable license, throughout the universe” to “utilize and exploit” their de-identified personal information for scientific research and “external and internal marketing purposes.” Ovia may also “sell, lease or lend aggregated Personal Information to third parties,” the document adds.

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Corporations control so much of our data: they know who we socialize with, what our political beliefs are, and where we shop. Now, I guess, they know about our pregnancies, too.

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About the author

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is a senior reporter at Jezebel.

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