Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Period tracking apps in an age of anti-abortion government surveillance

Published: 1/22/2020 6:00:18 PM

For years, mood swings were a harbinger of my period. Yet I often forgot when I was likely to start menstruating so I would assume my bad moods were caused by all sorts of things going on in my life, until I finally realized what it was, to my relief. Each month, I diligently wrote down my data, but would often still forget the next month when my period came around.

But now with period tracking apps, people who menstruate have a wide range of choices to track their periods on their cellphones or computers. Period tracking apps can be useful for getting to know your body by understanding the patterns (if any) in your cycle and recording symptoms like headaches, cramps or mood swings. There are now hundreds of free apps out there that can track and analyze your menstrual cycle as well as provide information about contraception, STIs and other health-related issues.

Menstrual apps sound like a great idea, but in these times of corporate data collection, government surveillance and eroding reproductive rights, we need to be careful, says Susan Yanow of Women Help Women, an international, nonprofit, reproductive health advocacy organization. “With a commercial app, they need to monetize it in some way,” says Yanow.

Period tracking apps are in fact monetizing women’s personal data by selling this data to advertisers. While this is troubling enough, much more disturbing is the possibility that people’s data might be accessed and used by anti-abortion legislators and government officials to restrict reproductive rights. State and federal officials have already exhibited a willingness to invade women’s privacy by tracking their periods using government records.

Late last year in Missouri, anti-abortion health officials admitted to tracking women’s periods in order to determine when women were having abortions. On spreadsheets, the government kept a record of the dates of the last menstrual period for each patient, as well as medical identification numbers, dates of medical procedures, and the gestational ages of fetuses. The health officials hoped to use the data to shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in the state.

The Trump administration has also admitted to tracking the menstrual cycles of migrant girls in government custody. Under the direction of Scott Lloyd , the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement compiled spreadsheets with the age of detained minors, how far along they were in their pregnancies, whether they reported that the pregnancy resulted from a sexual assault, and whether or not the minor asked for an abortion. Their goal was to prevent girls from accessing abortions, an effort blocked by a DC federal appeals courts in June.

While these cases did not involve pregnancy tracking apps, they exhibit government officials’ willingness to invade people’s privacy in order to block reproductive health care access.

Concerns about privacy led Yanow and Women Help Women to develop a new sexual and reproductive health app that is private and secure. Developed with the support of an anonymous foundation, the free app (available on the Apple App Store or Google Play) is called Euki, for eucalyptus — a plant associated with soothing and wellness. According to Yanow, the app is both web secure and device secure.

Unlike almost every other period tracking app, Euki does not store any user data in the cloud. Data that a user enters is only stored on the user’s phone, and no one else has access to it. Users can choose to protect the app with a password, and can even engage a feature to display a fake screen if someone were to force them to open the app.

In addition to tracking menstruation, Euki can also track your sexual activity, orgasms, health screenings and other important data. And you can plug in appointments and reminders into its customizable calendar. The app is intuitive and flexible, says Yanow, so you can adapt it to your own needs.

Euki is also inclusive and non-judgmental. The app was developed with transgender and gender-nonconforming people in mind. According to Women Help Women, Euki addresses the needs of anyone who can get pregnant, including queer people, transgender people, gender non-conforming people, people with multiple sex partners, people with irregular periods, and anyone who may have felt misunderstood or marginalized by the medical system.

Euki doesn’t assume the user wants to get pregnant and it doesn’t have predictive logic programmed in, so users with irregular periods, for example, won’t get any annoying pop ups asking if they’re pregnant.

In addition to its tracking functions, Euki offers information on sex, consent, STIs, contraception, miscarriage, pregnancy options, and abortion, including how to self-manage abortion with pills, from sources you can trust, like the World Health Organization and Guttmacher Institute.

The app links to direct service and advocacy organizations, particularly important in light of the Trump administration’s new domestic gag rule, which prohibits health clinics receiving Title X federal funds from fully informing patients about abortion. And soon, Euki will be available in Spanish.

“Being able to take control of one’s reproductive health with the help of an app is really empowering,” says Yanow. “One is not dependent on a clinician who may or may not want to give you the full range of contraceptive options — they may be pointing you in one direction — they may not want to tell you where an abortion provider is or how to get abortion pills. They may not support the person using abortion pills on their own. Euki empowers people with information and encourages people to learn about all of their options.”

As the Trump administration and conservative legislators across the country roll back access to contraception and abortion, and show a willingness to invade people’s privacy to achieve these ends, a tool like Euki is more important than ever. “Knowledge is power,” says Yanow. “If we can’t control our bodies, we can’t control our lives.”

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.



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