Data Entered into Fertility Apps May Not Be as Secure as Women Believe

Privacy issues may arise when women use apps to track their menstrual cycles

Data Entered into Fertility Apps May Not Be as Secure as Women Believe
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August 4, 2016

Every day apps are created that enable users to organize their lives by keeping details in one centralized, convenient location, such as a smartphone. What these users may not consider, however, is the possibility that the information they enter into the apps—information often of a very personal nature—may not be secure.

One recent instance was provided by a mobile app known as Glow, which is used to track health-related data such as fertility and menstruation. In July, Consumer Reports found alarming vulnerabilities in the app.

"One security flaw might have let someone with no hacking skills at all access a woman's personal data," the magazine reported. "Other vulnerabilities would have allowed an attacker with rudimentary software tools to collect email addresses, change passwords, and access personal information from participants in Glow's community forums, where people discuss their sex lives and health concerns."

Although the vulnerabilities particular to Glow have been fixed, privacy concerns still remain regarding the use of apps in general in tracking highly personal data, as The Washington Post pointed out. And the leakage of such information could prove not only embarrassing but even dangerous, as Consumer Affairs noted: it could be used maliciously by "stalkers and abusive spouses and exes."

Furthermore, when it comes to the law such apps are in a "regulatory gray zone," the organization explained. "Many of them are not covered by HIPPA, the federal health privacy law that protects information shared with healthcare providers."

And even for apps that are covered, many users may still be concerned about what is actually done with the information they track. Who has access to it on the back end of the app? What do they do with it? Can it be shared with or sold to third parties without the user's permission?

Given these questions, users may be more likely to consult a lawyer than a doctor before they sign up, as it is likely that their doctor won't be able to advise them about the apps. "Women who ask their doctors for advice are likely to find that the doctor knows no more than the patient about the vulnerabilities of any specific app," Consumer Affairs reported, "which means that it is once again buyer -- or perhaps user -- beware."