Where is your personal data going?
We enter a lot of information into the pregnancy and fertility apps on our phones. Some of this information is incredibly personal, the kind of information that we wouldn't want anyone, especially our employers, to have access to.
But as the Washington Post revealed recently, Ovia, a popular brand of pregnancy, parenting and fertility apps, offers a version of its apps that employers can offer as an employee health benefit, and that means employers are getting access to a lot of very personal data.
The data is anonymous, so employers shouldn't be able to use it to target a specific employee (although research suggests it's not impossible to identify people via anonymized data), but they certainly are using it to track their workforces.
Companies hope encouraging the use of Ovia will help them save on employee medical costs and get mothers back to work quickly by helping them stay healthier. According to the Post, this is part of Ovia's sales pitch to companies.
In a statement to Motherly, a spokesperson for Ovia explains the company works "with a number of employers to provide them with our maternity and family benefits solution that helps women grow their families and their careers. If an employer offers our maternity and family benefits, an employer will alert employees about this benefit. If an employee chooses to sign up for these benefits, they will receive on-demand coaching, personalized guidance and information, and tools to improve their health. Employers receive broad, population-level statistics on app usage such as number of enrollments, number of active users, and users per session."
The statement continues: "The vast majority of our users are on our free to download consumer apps. On the consumer apps, activity in the app is not -- and has never been -- shared with employers."
From the employer's perspective, pregnancy can be a big expense for companies funding employee health insurance, so in theory, Ovia is offered to workers in the hopes that by tracking their pregnancies women will stay healthier and cost the companies less.
But experts worry the data could be used to discriminate against women, and caution against volunteering so much intimate data.
"The fact that women's pregnancies are being tracked that closely by employers is very disturbing," Deborah C. Peel, founder of the Texas nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights, tells The Post. "There's so much discrimination against mothers and families in the workplace, and they can't trust their employer to have their best interests at heart."
The Washington Post report raised concerns about how pregnancy data may be used by employers, but even if your pregnancy app data isn't going to your employer, you may want to think about where your information is ending up, why the app exists at all—and certainly why it is free to download. When it comes to the digital world if we're not paying for something ourselves, that usually means our data is the product.
Back in 2016 Peel raised these concerns in another interview with the Post, noting that "This kind of information for women is very intimate," and that "The implications are really huge: There are absolutely no laws that protects that information from being sold, disclosed, or traded — for any purpose, be it marketing or research."
So maybe, before logging our sex lives, our periods and our pregnancies, we need to think more about where that info is going.
Joana Varon is the founder of Coding Rights, a Brazil-based women-run organization that works to "expose and redress the power imbalances built into technology". Along with Natasha Felizi and others, Varon has researched and reviewed menstrual-tracking apps and our relationship with them.
Her team concluded that most of these apps "rely on the production and analysis of data for financial sustainability." In other words: Tracking our periods has become another form of unpaid work for women. We do the work of putting in our data, and the companies use our intimate information to make money and inform marketing strategies.
Brianna Bell, a millennial mother who works as a freelance writer wasn't worried about an employer tracking her data, as she was using the consumer version of Ovia's pregnancy and parenting apps for 18 months. But she did not realize that the company behind these apps could sell her data. "It feels like a very big breach of privacy," she tells Glamour. "It makes me feel uncomfortable, and it feels like this company has preyed on women who are in the most exciting and vulnerable time of their life."
The controversy around Ovia is highlighting an important issue for our generation. The question now is, how much of our information do we want to trade for convenience?
Periods, fertility and pregnancy symptoms can all be tracked offline, and app makers would do well to center women as the customers for apps like these, rather than the product.
[Update, April 15, 2019: Added statement from Ovia.]