Every day, countless women open a period-tracking app to log information so personal, they might not even share it with a partner: the heaviness of their menstrual flow, their body weight, or when they last had sex. It goes without saying that the average user enters this information under the assumption that it’ll remain between them and the app — which, per a concerning new report from BuzzFeed News, may not hold true.
According to new research from U.K.-based advocacy group Privacy International, some period-tracking apps have been directly sharing theirs users’ highly personal data with tech behemoth Facebook and other third-party services. While many of the most popular menstruation apps, like Clue and Flo, were not incriminated by the findings, some of the ones that Privacy International found guilty of this practice have been downloaded millions of times. Maya by Plackal Tech, for example, has been downloaded more than 5 million times on Google Play, according to BuzzFeed News; MIA Fem, another app that has reportedly been sharing users’ information, says on Google Play that more than 2 million people around the world use their services.
What, exactly, would Facebook do with information about users’ mood swings and menstruation? As noted by Privacy International, “understanding people’s mood is an entry point for manipulating them,” with the manipulators in this scenario being advertisers. This reading is spot-on: According to the report, the menstruation apps share their users’ data through Facebook’s Software Development Kit (SDK), which helps the social-media platform target its users with specific ads. So, if you’re telling you period-tracking app that you’ve missed your period or are pregnant, you may start seeing ads for strollers and baby bottles.
Even before Privacy International released its findings today, its investigation has had a positive impact on one period-tracking app’s practices. In an email to the advocacy group, Plackal Tech said it has “hence removed both the Facebook core SDK and Analytics SDK from Maya.” MIA, on the other hand, attempted to intimidate both Privacy International and BuzzFeed out of publishing their respective findings on MIA at all.
While Facebook did not make any major promises, a spokesman for the site told BuzzFeed News that they “have begun looking at ways to improve our system and products to detect and filter out more types of potentially sensitive data.” Furthermore, the platform told the outlet that it has reached out to the apps incriminated in Privacy International’s research to start discussions around ways they have potentially violated its terms of service.
In the meantime, might I suggest my favorite period, sex, and mood trackers: my planner and journal, which I guard with my life.