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  • Arwa Mahdawi

There’s a dark side to Women’s Health Apps: ‘Menstrual surveillance’

The rise of ‘menstrual surveillance’: why digital privacy is a feminist issue

Your vagina has been digitized. So have your ovaries. So has your period. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in “femtech”, digital tools and services centered around women’s health. There are positive aspects to this, but there’s also a dark side, including the rise of what has been called “menstrual surveillance”. Corporations are increasingly aware that female bodies are temples of lucrative information, and are exploiting this data in new and ever-more-dystopian ways.

Take Ovia Health, a collection of family-planning apps, for example. According to a recent report by the Washington Post, Ovia “has become a powerful monitoring tool for employers and health insurers, which, under the banner of corporate wellness, have aggressively pushed to gather more data about their workers’ lives”. That data includes intimate information about your fertility, your menstrual cycle and the progression of your pregnancy. Activision Blizzard, a video game company, is one of various employers encouraging its workers to use Ovia’s tracking services.

The information collected by the apps is then shared with the company, allowing it to see how many of its employees are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or facing high-risk pregnancies.

Activision Blizzard has been experimenting with employee monitoring technology for a while; in 2014 it incentivized employees to use Fitbits. The video game company’s vice-president of global benefits proudly told the Post: “Each time we introduced something, there was a bit of an outcry: ‘You’re prying into our lives.’ But we slowly increased the sensitivity of stuff, and eventually people understood it’s all voluntary, there’s no gun to your head, and we’re going to reward you if you choose to do it.” Ah yes, I forgot to mention the rewards! Activision Blizzard pays employees a princely $1 a day to use Ovia.

It’s disingenuous for employers to describe tracking initiatives like this as “voluntary” if they’re strongly encouraging people to use them. It’s also disingenuous to claim, as Ovia does, that you don’t need to worry about privacy issues, because all the data provided to employers is aggregated and anonymized. There’s plenty of evidence that “anonymized” data can easily be cross-referenced with other data and traced back to the source.

It is well-established that companies discriminate against pregnant employees: the implications of this sort of menstrual and pregnancy monitoring are terrifying. Particularly, as Rachel Dubrofsky, co-editor of the book Feminist Surveillance Studies, told me over email, in a climate where anti-abortion zealots are trying to remove all reproductive rights from women in America –

“For instance, the recent attempt by Texas legislators to make abortion a capital offense,

punishable by death, and the Ohio ‘heartbeat bill’, outlawing abortion once a heartbeat can be detected.” Given this climate, Dubrofsky notes, “apps such as Ovia are particularly concerning for their potential to further restrict the rights of women to have control over their bodies, make

“We have to build a picture of how much this happens, because it happens a lot,” said Gina Martin, a victim of upskirting who campaigned to make a law against it.

‘Upskirting’ criminalized in English law

Taking a photo of someone’s underwear or genitals, buttock or genitals without their consent is now a crime in England and Wales, punishable by up to two years in prison.

The new legislation is largely thanks to Gina Martin, who was a victim of “upskirting” at a music festival in 2017. Martin reported the incident to the police but discovered that it wasn’t an offence under English law; she quickly started a campaign to change that.

While Martin is thrilled with the new law, she points out that more needs to be done to raise awareness of the issue. “If a new law’s there, great – but if we don’t know about it or aren’t reporting it, [then] it doesn’t do anything,” she told BBC News. “We have to build a picture of how much this happens, because it happens a lot.”

The ‘consent condom’

Stupidest idea of the week goes to something called the “Consent Pack” of condoms, designed by an Argentinian ad agency as a marketing gimmick for Tulipan, which makes sex toys and contraceptives. It takes four hands to open this condom, which is supposed to illustrate the importance of consent. As journalist Holly Baxter noted on Twitter: “The worrying thing is that this frames consent as a ‘discussion’ and implies that the real issue is that women might make it up/exaggerate after consensual sex. This is a product designed essentially to protect men from rape accusations, not to protect women from rape.”

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