Last week Politico shared a document detailing the Supreme Court’s draft decision on Roe v. Wade, the landmark case protecting a person’s Constitutional right to abortion. The draft revealed the Court was prepared to overturn its 1973 decision, thus “returning the issue of abortion” to individual states—a majority of which are certain or likely to outright ban abortion should the decision be finalized.
Some people are concerned that these states could criminalize abortion à la Texas, which made abortions illegal after six weeks of pregnancy and can jail or fine people up to $10,000 for prescribing abortion pills. (This concern appears to be valid, considering Tennessee made it a Class E felony—punishable by up to $50,000 in fines—to distribute abortion medication through mail or telehealth just a few days ago.) With fines, jail time, and the threat of a criminal history on the line, people who use period-tracking apps have reason to worry that their digital footprints could be used against them.
It sounds like an unreasonable worry at first (cue the nay-sayers insisting “That will never happen”), but it’s happened before: one Mississippi woman was infamously dictated for second-degree murder after prosecutors got ahold of her internet search results, which included searches for “inducing a miscarriage” and “buy misoprostol abortion pill online.” And if someone’s Google history can be used in a court of law, so can the data from apps like Flo, Clue, or Ovia, which are focused on helping users track their fertility and menstrual cycle.
Period-tracking apps depend heavily on data entered by the user, like their temperature, mood, last menstrual period, and so on. Should a user who’s indicated that they’ve missed a period seek an abortion, that user’s data could be used to help “prove” they were at one point pregnant. And while most health-related apps claim to hold tightly to users’ data, this isn’t always the case: Flo—the Apple App Store’s top period-tracking app—got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission just last year for sharing users’ data with Facebook and Google. Perhaps most importantly, these apps are as obligated as any other entity to respond to subpoenas.
The leaked Roe v. Wade draft decision is just that—a draft—meaning abortion is still somewhat protected at the federal level. Still, healthcare providers, activists, and others are already beginning to recommend that people seeking abortions protect themselves online. Encrypted third-party communication apps (like Signal) keep your texts and calls off your cellular provider’s logs, while search engines that don’t track sensitive user data (like Duck-Duck-Go) provide a more secure pathway to finding telehealth or in -person providers. Those who are seeking in-person care are also encouraged to turn off location services on their mobile devices when visiting related facilities.