Period tracking apps: Data protection laws and monitoring crucial – ET HealthWorld


By Nisha Kumari and Avantika

New Delhi: Menstrual cycle tracker apps have become incredibly popular among women around the world in recent years. Built with the aim of giving women better awareness about the date and duration of their menstrual cyclesand ovulation period For people planning to have a baby or who want to prevent pregnancy and manage period-related health problems, such as hormonal migraines.

On the occasion of World Menstrual Hygiene Day ETHealthworld seeks to understand the operation of period tracker appswhy it is important to consult a doctor before making an informed decision and why there is scrutiny surrounding the collection of health data.

Apps offer temporary medical solutions

Users begin by revealing information about their menstrual cycles. This covers the start and end times of their cycles, as well as any symptoms or other data they want to track (for example, mood swings, heavy periods, or use of birth control). They also input data from ovulation predictor kits or basal body temperature (BBT) readings.

Using the raw data provided, the software then performs calculations and algorithms to predict the user’s upcoming menstrual cycles. These predictions are based on the assumption that future cycles will have features in common with previous ones. As the user adds additional data, the forecasts can become more accurate. Therefore, the program keeps track of scheduled start and end dates.

There has been a debate about how efficient these period tracker apps are when it comes to providing a proper diagnosis, and how they mostly offer a generalized solution for different sexual problems and reproductive health issues. Dr Preethika Shetty, Consultant OB/GYN, Motherhood Hospitals, Kharadi, said: “There are girls who use these menstrual apps to understand their menstrual cycle, their first period or when to plan for pregnancy. But they use apps for maybe a couple of months with it, but when they have problems they go to a gynecologist. Now there is another percentage of people who come to us and then ask if we should use them or not”. Dr Rajashri Tayshete Bhasale, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist, Laparoscopic Surgeon, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road, said: “We have to understand that the human body does not function based on these AI-based calculations. The apps are giving them temporary fixes, but they could get worse without proper diagnosis. The treatments or solutions you are receiving are only temporary. This can cause a long-term problem. Many women are using this to track their ovulation. They want to know if they’re pregnant and you know these apps are guiding them, but there’s so much they’re missing out on.”

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Scrutiny behind the collection of health data

period tracking apps it can be a major market growth driver for the femtech sector and can pose a threat to its users. Femtech (or female technology) is a phrase used to describe a group of programs, tests, goods, and services that often use technology to target women’s health. “All the scrutiny around the health data came from the conversations in the US, where the whole pro-choice, pro-life debate is a very big topic. That is not the case in India. But it’s a very big problem there. And one of the consequences of that problem in the digital age is that now people are concerned about the information that can be obtained from menstrual labs,” said Anushka Jain, Policy Adviser, Internet Freedom Foundation, India.

Jain added: “Personal data is a very important passage to be regulated because it can tell a lot about your life. Health data is even more important because it relates to a very personal aspect of your life. And it can have serious consequences if someone who shouldn’t be accessing it accesses it. An example of the problems that could arise is that if, for example, banks or insurance companies can access your health data, they could increase your insurance premiums if you ever apply for insurance based on the data they have. about you. This could have many serious consequences if it is accessed by someone who is not supposed to access it. Similarly, the data leading up to menstrual cycles is extremely sensitive in the sense that it is health data. And it is the data on the menstrual cycle of a person”.

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Echoing earlier sentiments, Dr Bhasale added: “Few monitoring apps can share your data with a third party. Now these can be collected by health insurance companies, who in turn could increase the cost of the premium. Today it is very easy to access information, but how you are going to use that information for yourself and how you are going to interpret it is something very different”.

Although users can access the app’s insights by providing information, it is believed that this data is distributed to companies and groups to further the expansion of the femtech market as a whole. These companies often persuade people to invest in their products by selling user information and data to brands. Users of such apps also report that period tracker apps suggest products and brands from menstrual hygiene companies.

There is no privacy law in India

Users have grown weary of their online presence, particularly on period tracking apps, as a result of casual data sales and government interference with personal data to police and regulate citizens. John Paul, founder and CEO of Maya, reported that “most apps claim to be compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which are the European rules on data privacy rights, which say you must obtain consent from the user before any data is tracked, or once a user tracks data if the right to be forgotten applies, the user must be able to delete all their data, and the data must not be shared with third parties, again, without the consent of the user. These are the general principles based on the GDPR rules that fall under, and we comply with practically all of them. We do not explicitly say that we are GDPR compliant, but we are fairly compliant with most of the provisions mentioned in the GDPR”.

Paul also explains what happens to the data if a user is no longer active in these apps. “First, if the user is no longer active but has not explicitly deleted their account, the data is still stored securely on our servers. Because the user is not active at the moment, it does not mean that the user is permanently gone. They may sign in after a while, or they may sign in from a different device or a different platform. Therefore, unless there is explicit consent and action by the user that they want their data deleted, we do not delete it. But with that being said, anytime the user wants to close their account and clear the data, the app has that option in the Account section,” he said.

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So the problem is definitely not about the existence of these apps. These apps obviously perform a valuable function. The problem is that India currently has no data protection laws. “Therefore, there is no standard for how the data that is collected will be stored. The other problem is that because of these health IDs, all the data related to a person is collected in one place. There is no cyber security policy in India, and there is no data protection law in India. But still, all this data is collected and collated to the extent that a person’s entire medical history can be accessed, which is extremely damaging,” Jain said.

Period tracker apps allow menstruators to plan ahead for their periods and offer a number of benefits, but it’s important to always stay in touch with a doctor and make informed decisions accordingly. In addition to this, the government should also make strict data protection laws regarding the accuracy, privacy, and accessibility of these apps.

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  • Updated On May 28, 2023 at 12:05 PM IST
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  • Posted on May 28, 2023 at 12:05pm IST
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  • 7 min read
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