In news unsurprising to anyone who’s had a period or given serious consideration to people who have periods: menstruation and pregnancy tracking apps ignore a wide range of reproductive and sexual health needs while focusing on more marketable ones, like pregnancy. There’s money to be made in such surveillance. (The so-called “femtech” market is estimated to be worth $50 billion within a decade.) Why else would the co-founder of PayPal be in the business of trying to track your cycle?
“They’re designed for marketers, for men, for hypothetical unborn children, and perhaps weirdest of all, a kind of voluntary surveillance stance,” Kaitlyn Tiffany writes in a Vox piece examining the industry.
Period-tracking apps work by tracking the cycles of its users with the promise of more accurate readings the more data you input. Share information about your monthly period, describe your flow (and mood and activity level and on and on) and allow the app to predict the next time you’ll menstruate or your next fertility window.
These apps are common enough and often incredibly useful for many, but contrary to whatever feminist or empowerment branding being used to market them, they are primarily about data collection. None of this is new, of course, but it can be easy to forget when you’re inputting your mood and charting other intimate details on your phone.
The data they generate can also be shared with developers, advertisers, researchers, and data brokers. Patient Privacy Rights founder Deborah Peel told the Washington Post in 2016 that reproductive health data is uniquely valuable to marketers — knowing that someone is preparing to become a parent means knowing that someone is about to enter one of the very few life stages in which they’re likely to get “hooked on new brands.”
The commercialization of pregnancy is not exactly a new concept, but it’s reached a fever pitch in the digital age, when marketing to someone based on the hormones and genetic material swimming in their abdomen is as simple as pulling a few key pieces of easily trackable data.
University of Canberra’s Deborah Lupton tells Vox that the true purpose of apps like Glow is found in the ways the reproductive health data gathered by each is used. “When you look at these types of apps, they’re completely about the surveillance of pregnant women,” she says. “Making them ever more responsible and vigilant about their bodies for the sake of their fetus.”
The intimacy of this data can also leave users vulnerable:
In 2016, Consumer Reports found security vulnerabilities in Glow so severe that user profiles could be accessed by “someone with no hacking skills at all.” That might sound like an exaggeration, so let me put it to you another way: The way Glow was set up in 2016, all you had to know in order to see a user’s full profile and account information was their email address, which is what led reporter Kelly Weill to dub the app “a jackpot for stalkers.” (Glow quickly fixed the issue and commented, “There is no evidence to suggest that any Glow data has been compromised.”)
And for what it’s worth—if you are using these apps for fertility, or simply to track your menstrual cycle—paper charts are always an option. Otherwise, it’s just good to know what you’re signing up for when you’re telling your phone about mucus cycles.
Read the full article here.