Lots of people find it helpful to keep tabs on their menstrual cycles. Advertisers, employers, health insurers and governments might want that information, too.
Earlier this month, a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade raised privacy concerns about health data, including the kind we share with period-tracking apps. In states where abortion is criminalized, data from period apps could become evidence of a crime.
If you want to track your menstrual cycle without sharing that information with companies, your employer or potentially law enforcement, here’s what to keep in mind, privacy and health experts say.
Why you should be careful with apps. Menstrual-tracking apps help people keep tabs on their periods, ovulation and pregnancies. What they don’t always do is keep that information to themselves.
Natural Cycles, the first-ever app approved by the Food and Drug Administration for birth control, can collect “sensitive information” linked to your identity, according to its listing in the Apple App Store. Unlike details you share with a health care provider, the health information you turn over to an app is not protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). That means it could end up in the hands of data brokers — who collect and sell hoards of personal data — insurers, employers and even law enforcement.
Find and screen safe apps. Right now, it’s incredibly difficult for people at home to evaluate the privacy of period apps and understand where their data is flowing behind the scenes, Palfrey said.
There are some secure apps such as Euki, which claim to have stronger privacy protections, according to Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director at If/When/How, a legal advocacy organization. (Indeed, Euki says it doesn’t collect any personal or other data.) If you’re considering an app, read the privacy policies — can this app share data with “partners,” “affiliates” or “third parties”? You want apps that encrypt your data and store it on your device instead of in the cloud, if possible.
Any digital data stored on your phone could still become a liability if law enforcement obtains your device. If you’re worried about law-enforcement access to your phone in general, use a passcode instead of fingerprint or Face ID to lock it. “Users should be careful about sharing information with third-party apps that they wouldn’t want getting into the wrong hands,” Palfrey said.
Use your phone’s health app. Luckily, third-party apps aren’t the only options for tracking your cycle on a phone. Both Apple and Google have period tracking options built into their mobile health apps that tout more privacy protections than the apps sold in their app stores.
On iPhones and iPads, the Health app has basic cycle tracking that includes period and fertility predictions. It can record sensitive information about your body, including sexual activity, pregnancy test results and various symptoms. The data is encrypted. There is an option to back it up to iCloud; however, as with anything encrypted in this manner, the company does have the ability to turn data over to law enforcement. For maximum privacy, you can turn off Health access in your iCloud settings, but be sure to save a copy on your phone. Apple also offers the ability to sync the data with third-party apps, but the same precautions apply here as when using any outside app.
Track with a spreadsheet. Somewhere between a full-featured app and piece of paper, spreadsheets that are stored on your device and don’t link to the cloud are a private option for period-tracking. Spreadsheets can include formulas that do some of the calculations for you.
Any spreadsheet where you can input the dates of the first and last day of your period should do the trick. If you’re using the sheet to track ovulation and fertility, leave room to note your temperature and body fluids, as well. Planned Parenthood has a guide for anyone new to these methods of fertility tracking, known as fertility awareness methods (FAMs).
The internet has downloadable templates for period-tracking in Excel. The safest way to use one of these spreadsheets is to save it on your computer or phone and make it password protected so that only you can open it.
Use a digital calendar. You use online calendars to track everything else in your life, why not your period? Calendars on your computer are usually synced between multiple devices and may not be the safest place to put sensitive health information. Because they are not using data for targeted ads, they can be a step up from some apps. However, if you use one to track your period and are worried, you can use code or emoji to mark the dates. You can also turn a spreadsheet into a calendar for all the sweet formatting with a bit more security.
Old-fashioned pen and paper. When in doubt, you can always track your cycle in a notebook or analog calendar.
“The only equipment you need is a paper, pen, calendar and thermometer,” said Karen Jefferson, director of midwifery practice at the American College of Nurse-Midwives. “You can figure out all about your cycle and your periods of fertility, and nobody can take your data.”
She recommends marking the first and last day of your periods to get an idea of your average cycle over time, and even write down when you have sex and whether it’s protected.
Know your rights. People don’t have to turn over their phones and other devices if law enforcement asks, experts say. And those who want to talk to friends and family about their reproductive health or search the internet for extra information can opt for encrypted messengers and privacy browsers.
If you’ve been using a period-tracking app and are concerned about it storing your data, you can submit a data deletion request. This right applies only to people who live in states with extra privacy protection, but some companies say they’ll honor these requests from people anywhere.