Online discussions regarding women’s health data are becoming more prominent as worries about data privacy and security, particularly in women’s health apps, develop.
The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, which safeguarded a woman’s right to seek an abortion, has raised concerns about the safety of women’s health information. The ruling makes it possible to charge women who seek abortions with crimes and casts doubt on the authority of law enforcement to request information about abortion from data firms and women’s health apps.
An executive order defending women’s access to abortion and online data privacy was signed by President Joe Biden. The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services were specifically tasked by the EO with enhancing the protection of sensitive data pertaining to reproductive healthcare services.
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform requested information on the collection and sale of personal reproductive health data from five personal health companies and five data brokers in letters sent on Friday. The committee raised concerns about the misuse of personal information by people seeking reproductive health care.
87% of the 23 most popular women’s health apps shared data with third parties, with only 50% of women’s health apps requesting permission from users to do so according to a study done by committee members.
“The collection of sensitive data could pose serious threats to those seeking reproductive care as well as to providers of such care, not only by facilitating intrusive government surveillance, but also by putting people at risk of harassment, intimidation, and even violence,” committee members said in a statement.
Some women’s health apps have announced new measures to protect women’s health data.
The women’s health app Flo sent an email to its users saying, “We will do everything in our power to protect the data and privacy of our users.”
The app will introduce “anonymous mode”, which will give users the ability to remove identifying information such as name and email address from their Flo accounts. The company also committed to never sharing personal data with other companies regardless of whether users opt into anonymous mode.
Women’s health company Bellabeat has decided to roll out a private key encryption feature by the end of July enabling all users to access and decrypt data with a private key. This means that means any personal data stored on Bellabeat servers would be unreadable, as it’s stored in encrypted form that only the user could decrypt with the private key.
Legislators and analysts have voiced worry about the potential of major tech firms like Apple and Google to gather user data, including women’s health data, as well as track user whereabouts, in addition to the data that women share with health apps.
Google said in a blog post that in the coming weeks it plans to delete location history for users who visit abortion clinics. The company also noted its “long track record” of pushing back on demands from law enforcement for its data.
“The Supreme Court inadvertently kicked over the privacy hornet’s nest,” says Mark DiMassimo, founder and creative chief of creative agency DiGo, “Anybody who cares about the right of privacy is going to be concerned, awakened, and I think activated by this wake-up call.”
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