The White House is warning individuals to be “really careful” when using phone apps that track users’ menstrual cycles over fears that the data could be used against them if they seek abortions following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I wouldn’t say we’re directing people (to stop using the apps), but I think people should be really careful about that,” Jen Klein, co-chair and executive director of the White House Gender Policy Council, told reporters on Friday.
President Joe Biden touched on the issue earlier Friday while signing an executive order aimed at abortion protections, asking the chair of the Federal Trade Commission to consider taking steps to protect consumer privacy when seeking information about reproductive health care services. Klein added that the Department of Health and Human Services has publicized instructions on how to delete apps from their phones.
Concerns about state data collection from period apps has increased in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, which eliminated the federal constitutional right to an abortion. Abortion advocates have warned the White House that women who reside in states that criminalize abortion could face prosecution when seeking one and data from those apps could be used as evidence against them.
In Congress, three House lawmakers launched an investigation this week into the collection and sale of personal health data related to abortion by data brokers and period-tracking apps. And a group of senators introduced a bill last month that would ban data brokers from selling health and location data.
In the private sector, however, many tech companies have thus far declined to say how they plan to respond to such requests from law enforcement. And online privacy experts have identified data brokers – which collect consumer data from various online sources and license it to third parties, typically advertisers – as a particularly vulnerable area because law enforcement could potentially purchase user data rather than having to issue a formal legal request.
In response to the potential privacy issues, Flo, the leading menstrual cycle tracking app with 240 million users, announced an “anonymous mode” option last week.
The feature allows users enter data into the app without adding their name, email or technical identifier. If the company, which is based in London, receives an official request to identify a user by name or email, it will be unable to connect that information with their health data, Flo said.
And Clue, based in Berlin and serving 12 million users globally according to its site, claims its European location makes it a more secure home for data.
But some privacy experts are skeptical about how much a feature like Flo’s anonymous mode can separate the user from their personal health data.
Apple has told CNN it takes numerous steps to protect health data on its devices and in the cloud, including by encrypting health information in iCloud when a user enables two-factor authentication.
And Google last week said it will soon automatically delete location history records that show whether a person has visited an abortion clinic or fertility center. In a blog post, Google said the move is intended to help users protect their privacy when they visit locations that could shed light on their personal medical situation or health care decisions.
But tech companies have also broadly said they would comply with government data requests so long as they are consistent with existing laws. The rollback of federal abortion protections, combined with the passage of new legislation in numerous states restricting abortion, could make it difficult for platforms to fight certain data demands related to abortion investigations.
CNN’s Jennifer Korn and Clare Duffy contributed to this report.