It’s hard to imagine more sensitive data than that collected by fertility apps, which track not just women’s menstrual cycles, but also their sexual encounters, orgasms, and pregnancies. A new study shows that many of those apps are sharing that data without users’ knowledge or permission.
Two European researchers, from the U.K.’s Newcastle University and Sweden’s Umeå University, analyzed the tracking practices of 30 top free fertility apps in the Google Play Store. The apps collect data including temperature, mood, sexual activity, orgasm, and medical records, not to mention pregnancy, abortion, and pregnancy loss.
Without informing users, the apps activated an average of nearly four trackers upon launching, and the majority do not comply with European privacy and tracking regulations. Though the study did not delve into the business models of the app companies, it is likely that they are free because the companies profit from selling the data to third parties.
In the United States, so-called femtech apps fall between the cracks of existing regulation: Since they do not promise medical benefits, they do not need to be vetted by federal health regulators, nor do they fall under the purview of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Apps that track women’s cycles, like Flo, have been found to have similar problems: You can read an in-depth investigation by Privacy International. Flo settled Federal Trade Commission charges that the company shared intimate user details with companies including Facebook and Google from 2016 to 2019. Some collect data like masturbation habits and bathroom-use frequency.
This study adds to a chorus of those demanding more security and protection for users of these apps, which are frequently classified as “health” apps, rather than “medical,” thereby dodging regulations. Until regulation catches up, your best bet is to read the fine print—and perhaps stick to app companies that have already faced investigations by U.S. and European regulators, and have agreed to change their practices.