Your Period Tracker Is Not Your Friend

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S1: Some apps used by millions of people are sharing data like a person’s menstrual cycle, contraception use, and even sex life with Facebook and other third parties. Hi, I’m Madison Malone Pritchard.

S2: And I’m Rachel Hampton. And you’re listening to I feel I’m I.

S1: In case you missed it.

S2: Please podcast about Internet culture.

S1: What a freakin week, Rachel.

S2: What? Honestly, I think it deserves a fucking at this point. What a fucking week.

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S1: Fair. Yeah, absolutely fair. It’s just. Can you believe it’s only been a week? Can you believe it’s been a week?

S2: Honestly, at this point, I feel like we’ve been living in this terrible liminal space for at least three years at this point.

S1: To borrow from the great poetess, Olivia Rodrigo. It’s brutal out here. Before we get into what we obviously have to get into, given the state of the world this week, the levity, I beg Rachel, show me something good you saw on the Internet this week.

S2: I’m going to show you something that I think kind of perfectly encapsulates my experience growing up as an adolescent in Texas.

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S3: Welcome. Welcome, everyone. Greet the person next to you. And when you’re ready to sing with me. Am I more than? Bargain for. You using with.

S2: Find more than he bargained for. Look for those for whom the the lyrics. Am I more than you bargained for? You don’t immediately strike a chord deep within your pop punk soul. Those are the lyrics to Bad Boy songs, Sugar Going Down. It is, as you have heard, sung in the style of a praise song which perfectly fits the TEDTalks caption, which is If Fall Out Boy Were a worship group raises a lot of interesting questions, none of which I have the answer to.

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S1: Okay. I laughed. It worked. Well done.

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S2: I’m. I’m glad. I’m glad. Now you have to show me. What have you got for me?

S1: Okay. I also have a tick tock. And before I play it for you, I’m going to set the scene. The caption on screen reads a song I wish I could requested the club, but definitely can’t. Part eight. Well, you can’t see because it’s a tick tock that we will tweeted is there’s a woman absolutely just throwing it back to the Olympic theme song, which speaks to me on a spiritual level.

S2: I feel like these two tiktoks have never been more representative of who we both are as individuals.

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S1: We are who we are.

S2: As the philosopher Kesha says.

S1: Another poetess. Kesha.

S2: Honestly, yeah. Praying gets me every time.

S1: Well, now that we moved on to things that make me cry night. Well, I’m going to get there somehow. Because today on the show, we’re obviously going to be talking about the only thing anyone is talking about right now.

S2: Here we are, like everyone else, talking about the leaked Supreme Court opinion, foretelling the end, the overturning of Roe versus Wade.

S1: And rightly so. After the news broke on Monday evening. Social media platforms. So TikTok and Twitter were, of course, flooded with reactions, infographics, guides for procuring self-managed abortions, protest details, illegal abortion, horror stories, first person accounts from people, you know, just staring at their cameras, desperate to de-stigmatize what boils down to effectively health care, you know, normal stuff for a stable democracy.

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S2: The leaked draft memo indicated the court’s likely decision to send us back to an era that passed and I mean, quite frankly, president, because Roe was not decided that long ago. But past generations of feminists hoped that we would never have to experience again.

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S1: Except this time, even though Roe wasn’t all that long ago. Some things have changed in the year since. It’s 2022. This isn’t the anti-abortion nation of the pre Roe era. You know why are hanger abortions are likely a thing of the past and also please stop using that imagery. But it doesn’t mean that this country is in any way a less dangerous place to have a uterus right now. And we partly have the Internet to thank for that.

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S2: For years, many people, including us, we are not exempt from this, have been basically giving away our reproductive medical data, storing it in period tracker apps for the ease the genuine and rare pleasure that is having an app that is actually very helpful. That’s pretty rare, except that data is a potential weapon, especially for people living in states with trigger laws which will immediately ban abortion with the overturning of Roe.

S1: Like basically every app that you nor I, nor, you know, anyone who’s ever not read the terms of service before using period trackers aren’t truly private. And after the break, we’ll be back to talk about the apps that we use, why everyone’s talking about them right now, and how living in a world of big data team basically made this inevitable point.

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S3: Or we leave these words out to you tonight. We pray.

S2: And we’re back tracking our periods.

S1: Hmm. So fun. So fun. But in all seriousness, peer trackers are really useful tools and something we’ve both been using for years. I just looked and I downloaded mine in 2015.

S2: I also looked and I downloaded mine in 2016, so that’s about 6 to 7 years of data that our respective period tracker apps happiness.

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S1: Do you remember why you started using yours?

S2: I think I just never was particularly adept at actually using a calendar, and I think at the time I was also like slightly irregular. So I was trying to figure out what exactly was going on. And then after that it was so that I wouldn’t have to think about when my next period was starting. I could just check the app and be like, Okay, I won’t plan my vacation for this week.

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S1: Yeah, I’m trying to remember. I honestly think a medical provider recommended I start using one. I kept up with it because little, little fun behind the curtains story here. If you don’t have a uterus, it’s not always super fun and say if you’re seeing a medical professional and you’re in crippling pain that some doctors have likened to having a heart attack, it’s really hard to pull data from your brain that you need to provide your doctor. It’s much easier to pull out an app and be like, Here it has it all written down for me help.

S2: And that is why we have given away six or seven years of data.

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S1: Looking at that timestamp, 2015 2016, it does seem like these apps, based anecdotally on you and I, starting to use them and then took out right around the time that iPhones began to become ubiquitous, right? When smartphones in general became a thing that more and more people had in their pockets. Because it makes sense when you’ve got a computer in your pocket, you can keep track of all this data and, you know, synthesize it down into a nice little color coded chart that makes your life better.

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S2: I mean, yeah. And what’s so great about Pure Tracker apps is that they’re one of the few pieces of tech that became ubiquitous that are actually genuinely helpful for the people who use them, rather than the kind of typical pink washed bullshit no one really needs.

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S1: Rachel It dawns on me we should probably say which trackers we use. I use an app called Clue. What do you use?

S2: Mine is literally just called life.

S1: Like the series.

S2: It’s just. It’s just life.

S1: So we both use different trackers and our editor Allegra actually uses yet a third one. So we thought to be a good idea for her to join us for this part of the discussion. Also, we just like having her on the show. Hi, Allegra. Hi. Hi, Madison. Hi, Rachel.

S2: Hello. Thank you for joining us. It’s been a whole week.

S1: It has a very long week. When we mentioned we were doing a show on period tracker apps, you immediately piped up about yours. So tell us which one you use and what you like about it. So I use Flow and I think that’s one of the better known ones. I’m sure I found it just because it was like recommended to me when I search period tracker and it must have been the first one, but I actually really came to enjoy it, not just for obviously the tracking aspect, which is pretty standard. Just, you know, Mark, when your period happens and it’ll tell you when it’s happening next. Nothing surprising there. But the thing about flow that I thought was more interesting and ultimately fun was that it does have sort of a social community component to it. So outside of the actual period cycle tracking, there’s a set of message boards, all of which are anonymous. Yeah. And they’re about all kinds of topics like periods, obviously dating relationships, sex advice. It’s just like it’s kind of like its own Reddit forum, but localized to your period tracking app. And it was a lot of fun to just, you know, after I would log my cycle or even if I wasn’t on my period, I would go log into my flow app and I would read about people’s nutty sex stories and dating problems. And it ended up being a lot of fun and made me use this period app a lot. I’m curious if, in addition to the raunchy sex stories, was there actually like useful conversation happening about reproductive health and periods? And is this normal clot picture here? Who among us? Yeah. So outside of like, you know, the message boards, there were also if you subscribe to flow like they had a premium tier, you could get actual direct lines to doctors like gynecologists and you could message them about your specific questions. And they had sort of like fake news and cute illustrated kinds of guides about different things related to sex and periods and then also nutrition and. Life style and exercise different sorts of things that you could just kind of passively look at if you wanted to, as well as find discussions along those lines on the message boards. Definitely, like any kind of period related symptom you’re having, you would be able to find a topic about it, like, let’s say your cycle is irregular and that never happens. Like absolutely someone else is experiencing that too. And if I do, I, you know, dove into the message board and I was like, Oh, there’s something off with my period right now. Maybe I should post about it. Question mark like someone else was already talking about that same thing. So even though of course I was mostly there for the fun, awkward raunch, it was kind of like validating to hear, you know, to see that everyone was experiencing seemingly every kind of potential issue or symptom or effect of having having a menstrual cycle. Do you still use the app? So I actually don’t use it anymore. Sadly, I do miss it. The reason I stopped using it is because I now am on like birth control. So I don’t really get a period anymore. And I mean, not that I shouldn’t be tracking. I don’t know. I don’t really feel the need to track my cycle anymore because I’m not really getting anything. But it really took me a long time to actually get rid of the app because I really did like going on those matches message for like even when I, you know, was got my IUD and stopped really getting a period and stopped needing to track it like for a couple months there I would still log on and just read what people were talking about. Eventually I was like, okay, I’m running out of space and I’m on my phone and I got to get rid of some stuff here. And Flo is an obvious choice to eliminate, but I do think about re downloading it sometimes. Please break my heart about flow because I’ve always kept myself ignorant about the details.

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S2: I’m so sorry to tell you that even though a lot of us don’t even think about what we’re doing when we’re handing over our data, sometimes we do think about it. And then companies step in and say, Don’t think about it because we’re going to lie. FLO The company just reached a settlement with the FTC over allegations that it shared users data with third party apps like Facebook. After promising users that they’d keep their sensitive health data private to the point that Facebook would just. No. And be able to attach specific users menstrual data to their profile. So even if you didn’t have a face, but even if you didn’t have a Facebook profile, they would still have access to your menstrual data. So, you know, I love them.

S1: So that means like, that’s why I was getting a lot more Eminem’s ads every third week of the month. Is that why? Pretty much. Because arguably, in addition to that reproductive data you were willingly sharing, period. Apps like most apps also grabbed your usage time and your location, your search history, your communication, credit card, financial data and all of that data, it turns out, is just way too easy for the average buyer to get their hands on. Who? My question is, though, like, what are we supposed to do? Of course, everyone’s trying to use all kinds of our data, but I still want to be able to track my period and it’s so much easier to let some app do it for me. Right. But so should I like regret my time on flow or should I just accept that that’s just how the world works now?

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S2: That is a phenomenal question, Legere. I love that you’re leaving us with this huge, impossible to answer query. I don’t love that you’re leaving us because. Yes, I see. Why am I listening? This is a like this last show as our editor.

S1: Well, as a good editor, I just want to leave you all with something to think about. But thank you guys for having me. It’s been a pleasure. We’re going to take a quick break to try and answer Allegra’s questions and also have a good cry. But when we get back, we’re going to talk about those concerns about data privacy and big tech and what we can do to try to keep ourselves protected, even if that means just having more conversations like this one.

S2: Hi. I hope you’re enjoying today’s show. If this is your first time listening to ASU, I’m Maya then or welcome. We are so glad to have you all here. In case you missed it. No, we will not. By making that joke. Our show comes out twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You’re listening to the Saturday episode. On Wednesday we did a mailbag episode where we answered all y’alls burning questions, like, Is Wes Anderson a fascist? Yes, that is a real question. And yes, you can go listen to the episode right now to find out the answer.

S1: We are back with data privacy, which we know, we know look where humans, too, can very easily slide into boring topic territory. But that’s one of the ways that our private data has become so easy to access. You know something about the world ending with, you know, not a bang, but a bored whimper.

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S2: Unfortunately, as a nerd, I do in fact find both data privacy and copyright laws quite fascinating. But I understand that is not the average experience. The reason that we on this show right now are so concerned about data privacy right now and honestly, always the undertone of this entire show is capitalism, data privacy and tech platforms need to do better.

S1: Don’t forget, go to your local elections.

S2: Oh, yes. Those are the four I feel I am I thin enough. But in this moment where Roe is on the line, it’s become scarily easy to target people seeking abortions, using data purchasing and just a little bit of analysis. And by a little bit, I mean literally a little bit.

S1: Put it another way. If somebody had a map of everywhere that you go every single day, and they also had a handy calendar marking the days you menstruate each month, it wouldn’t be too hard to use those two things to figure out why a person perhaps visited an abortion clinic, or at least to presume that you figured out why a person visited an abortion clinic. I know we are probably preaching to the choir here, but obviously reproductive care is about so much more than just abortion.

S2: And so I think most of us think of our period tracker app as a place, functionally a diary, some place for us to store information just for ourselves to retrieve. But the thing is, no app, in fact, nothing on your phone is really just for you. And in a broader sense, Madison’s scenario of if somebody had a map of everywhere you go every single day, that that is basically the life that we are currently living. That is not even a hypothetical. If you have a smartphone, it is tracking your location.

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S1: I was reading a Washington Post piece this week where Allen Butler, who is the executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that it’s actually more likely that bad actors would figure out if a person had had an abortion using more old fashioned methods credit card records, cell phone tower logs, and, you know, that old chestnut, good old fashioned getting people to narc on you.

S2: So many of the cases we’ve seen where people are incarcerated for miscarriage or what they’re now calling fetal endangerment involve a nurse calling the police. So the narcs, they’re everywhere.

S1: They’re coming from inside the house. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s. Well, here’s a word hysteria to be worried about your period tracker app this week, or frankly, any app with sensitive information on your phone. And also, I’ll just stop you in case you’re thinking. But Madison, Rachel, we’ve known this all along. It’s okay for your fears to feel more acute and renewed this week for particular reasons.

S2: Not least because there was a piece in Vice this week about the data brokers safe graph. And what this data broker does is broker data bias, but a week’s worth of location data for about $160, which is just a little bit more than the smallest telfar bag.

S1: My personal information should cost Mart. At the very least, I feel.

S2: Like I’m worth more than that.

S1: I do.

S2: But that location data included. If you visited Planned Parenthood and technically that data is anonymized or aggregated, which means it can’t be tracked specifically to your phone. But as the Vice piece notes, quote, Researchers have repeatedly warned about the possibilities of unmasking individuals contained in allegedly anonymized data sets. These data brokers are not just selling randomize location data. They are, in fact aggregating data specifically for Planned Parenthood’s for reproductive health clinics, for places that provide abortions. So you can just buy data related to people who are going to these places, meaning anti-abortion groups can easily acquire that data to target and harass people seeking out abortions.

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S1: A few of the states that have trigger laws in place are also considering right now adding provisions that would criminalize people leaving the state to obtain abortions. So, you know, leaving Texas, flying to New York to. Yet health care.

S2: Giving a fugitive slave law not going to lie.

S1: The safe graph data that vice bought details where people are traveling from it guesses their home location using census data. And one of the people I spoke to actually said that safe graph is going to be like, quote unquote, the weapon of choice for anti-choice radicals. Because it’s just all right there. Laid out by our phones.

S2: And the thing is, this isn’t new. People on the right have had years to hone this kind of tracking ability to weaponize it specifically for this moment. It’s not just people on the right, to be clear. Tech has been harnessing the ability to hyper specifically target you as a consumer, as an individual, to sell you things. And now it is being used for similarly nefarious purposes.

S1: This has been in the works for years. This was a marathon and not a sprint. In 2016, an advertising executive by the name of John Flynn started working with anti-abortion groups to use location data to target women currently in Planned Parenthood clinics with anti-abortion ads. You know, when you think your phone is listening to you, Rachel, this is what’s actually happening. And those ads were an effort, of course, to intimidate them away from getting whatever care they wanted to get at Planned Parenthood. My hometown actually has a version of this, too. It’s the building across the street from the Planned Parenthood put up literal six foot statues of Jesus and Mary.

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S2: Honestly, I prefer that over the.

S1: This is in addition to the, quote unquote, prayer warriors on foot outside the clinic.

S2: God bless America. It’s not just Madison’s hometown or John Flynn. In 2019, the state health director in Missouri testified that they had reviewed menstrual data from Planned Parenthood patients in an attempt to suss out who was getting an abortion. And the thing is, this doesn’t just affect people seeking abortions. For those of you who were tuning out or who only care when further cases are being decided in the Supreme Court. We’ve seen the abuse of location data in countless ways, like in 2020, when police use location data to track and surveil protesters thanks to a data mining company who had access to Twitter data.

S1: I’ll say it even louder. Hello, my fellow. White gays, you should care about this now.

S2: Not least because Grinder recently made headlines when if, quote unquote, fully anonymous data was used to allow a closeted Catholic priest.

S1: Guess the giant Jesus statue is not working so well.

S2: Has the giant Jesus statue ever worked well?

S1: Yes. For the tourism economy in Brazil.

S2: I was going to say Rio de Janeiro, you did what you needed to do.

S1: This basically boils down to the fact that U.S. privacy laws are, I believe the official term is a total clusterfuck because instead of having what we should have, which is a blanket law that deals with all of our private data, we have this patchwork of laws and regulations that regulate specific types of data, like medical data or your financial data. And it just seems like we’re only handling it doesn’t seem like this is what’s happening. This country only handles data privacy in quick fixes when a problem becomes too loud to ignore. Rather than recognizing that we live in a digital world and the entire data privacy dam is, I think it already burst. Frankly.

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S2: I don’t ever think the dam existed. To be quite frank, the thing that for the last few days has really just been blowing my mind is that in the kind of fear over data privacy that is now fully abundant with the imminent fall of Roe v Wade, is that people have decided that they are now like experts on data privacy. And let me tell you, me and Madison are not experts on data privacy like they’re real experts on data privacy. And the thing is, they’re saying shit like delete all of your data from this app. Delete the app. You can’t delete data you’ve already given away. I’m sorry. You should be able to. There should be a way to take your data back from companies, but there is literally no way to do that. So you are already in some ways included in these massive, quote unquote anonymized aggregate data sets. And it’s honestly extremely hard to completely stop your phone from tracking you.

S1: You can’t do it. You truly to exist online in this era and keep up with your job and your peer in your grandparents. You can’t. You cannot. And on an individual level, I do want to note that this data invasion will disproportionately affect the same people that the rollback of Roe will disproportionately affect. Right? Like I’m a white lady sitting here in a blue state in the most liberal city in the country, or one of them like no one wants to know how long my period is or how miserable it is. But if you’d like to ask, I will tell you, you know. But who this will hurt are are the people who this this rollback is set to hurt the most. And it’s not terribly helpful to me. Like. Well. Too bad. Delete the app.

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S2: To make it even clear those people are black and brown women of color.

S1: Poor people.

S2: They are poor people.

S1: The disabled community.

S2: They are people who already have less access to reproductive health care anyway, which makes tracking your period even more important. Like those are the people who are really at risk right now.

S1: And no individual fix, no deleting an app on your phone is going to help that. The only way we’re going to get any real progress on that front are actual privacy laws. And I just the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation, which is the GDPR back in 2016. So basically the entire time you and I have been using those apps, the EU has been like, Hello citizens, we’d like to protect you online or at least make a good faith effort.

S2: And what’s so frustrating about having recently been in the EU is that it just proves that our online experience doesn’t have to be like this. We’ve in some ways traded what feels like convenience for handing over mountains and mountains of personal data, because in a lot of ways it’s a false choice. We weren’t actually told what this meant.

S1: Or frankly, there was no alternative. We know this week has left a lot of people, us included, feeling really helpless. And obviously this conversation doesn’t change the grimness of reality, but it does feel kind of good to process what’s happening in our country right now with all of you, our listeners. It also feels good to throw small amounts of money at things.

S2: Namely abortion clinics, abortion funds, any kind of reproductive justice organization that is mobilizing and importantly has been mobilized since, I would say at least the early aughts for this exact moment.

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S1: That’s something Rachel and I have both been doing and we would encourage you to do also, if you are able I’ve tweeted about a few of the places I’ve given, if you’re in need of a place to throw your money, which is to say, I’m not telling you what to do with your money or where to send it. But, you know, my Twitter is public.

S2: You can also Google abortion fund, donate.

S1: Insert state of your choice here.

S2: Go to your local school board elections. Yeah, but. All right. That is the show. We’ll be back in your feet on Wednesday, so please subscribe. It is the best way to never miss an episode, to never miss the many ways that you have handed over all of your data to giant unnamed tech companies to never miss an uplifting TikTok. Please leave a rating and review an app where Spotify and tell your friends about us. You can follow us on Twitter at ASU Reminders for podcast. Also, we can tell us your questions and as always, you can drop us a note. I see. Why am I at Slate.com?

S1: I see. Why am I? Is produced by Daniel Schrader, Rachel Hampton and me. Madison, Malone Kircher. Edited by Allegra Frank and Alicia montgomery is executive producer of Slate Podcasts. See you online.

S2: Or in Brazil. They’re trying to think of an app that was flim flam.

S1: Yeah, I’m.

S2: Just the Haslam. I thought there was an app called Phlegm.

S1: No, I have phlegm.