Popular period tracking apps are sending extremely personal information to Facebook regarding women's health and their sexual practices, according to UK-based advocacy group Privacy International.
Their findings, shared with BuzzFeed News, reveal that "period-tracking apps including MIA Fem and Maya sent women’s use of contraception, the timings of their monthly periods, symptoms like swelling and cramps, and more, directly to Facebook."
Notably, Maya - owned by India-based Plackal Tech, has over 5 million downloads, while MIA Fem: Ovulation Calculator owned by Cyprus-based Mobapp Development Ltd. claims to have over 2 million users worldwide.
The apps share information via Facebook's Software Development Kit (SDK), which helps developers collect user data and incorporate various features so that Facebook can better target users with ads. When personal information is entered into the apps, it Privacy International says it may be sent to Facebook via the SDK.
Asked about the report, Facebook told BuzzFeed News it had gotten in touch with the apps Privacy International identified to discuss possible violations of its terms of service, including sending prohibited types of sensitive information.
“When Maya asks you to enter how you feel and offers suggestions of symptoms you might have — suggestions like blood pressure, swelling or acne — one would hope this data would be treated with extra care,” the report said. “But no, that information is shared with Facebook.”
The app also shares data users enter about their use of contraception, the analysis found, as well as their moods. It also asks users to enter information about when they’ve had sex and what kind of contraception they used, and also includes a diarylike section for users to write their own notes. That information is also shared with Facebook. -BuzzFeed
Of note, advertisers are keenly interested in people's moods in order to strategically target them with advertisements when they're more likely to buy things. Women who are pregnant, or who want to become pregnant, are more likely to change their shopping habits, ofr example.
MIA Fem threatens to sue
While in the process of preparing this story, BuzzFeed reviewed an email from MIA Fem to Privacy International. When contacted by BuzzFeed for comment, they threatened to sue the watchdog!
After being subsequently contacted by BuzzFeed News, MIA Fem first asked for a copy of a draft of this article and details about which parts of its response would be quoted. It later threatened legal action against Privacy International and sent another email to BuzzFeed News, saying, “we hereby urge you to erase all the material erroneously obtained without prevarication and delays. We shall be waiting on your confirmation of the erasure.” -BuzzFeed
MIA Fem then warned BuzzFeed not to quote anything from their email to Privacy International, telling the news outlet via email: "As BuzzFeed has not been the intended recipient of the email, it should have never been shared with BuzzFeed and you as its representative."
"Considering that the unauthorized disclosure has already happened, we hereby urge you to erase all the material erroneously obtained without prevarication and delays. We shall be waiting on your confirmation of the erasure."
The owners of Maya, meanwhile, told BuzzFeed that it doesn't share any personally identifiable data with Facebook, saying in an email to Privacy International and BuzzFeed: "The Ad SDK [Facebook’s software development kit] helps us earn revenue by displaying ads that our users can opt out of by subscribing to Maya's premium subscription."
"All data accessed by Maya are also essential to the proper functioning of the product. Predicting information pertaining to menstrual cycles is complex and dependent on thousands of variables," continues the statement. "Location information, the significance of which is highlighted in the report, helps us triangulate regional variations in cycle lengths and thus help improve accuracy of our prediction over time."
MIA Fem asks users about all kinds of habits ranging from smoking to coffee consumption and tampon use. This data isn’t immediately shared with Facebook, Privacy International’s analysis found, but it enables MIA Fem to suggest articles to app users. Those articles — which are tailored to a user’s selected interests — are shared with Facebook. It also shared “reminders” within the app to take birth control medication with Facebook.
The apps’ behavior raises questions about how much users can knowingly consent to such private information being shared with outside companies like Facebook — especially when apps have lengthy terms of service that few users bother to read. -BuzzFeed
A Facebook spokesperson said that they require developers be upfront with users about what information is shared with the social media giant, and that apps must have a "lawful basis" for transmitting such data.
"We have systems in place to detect and delete certain types of data such as Social Security Numbers, passwords, and other personal data, such as email or phone number," said the spokesperson, adding "We have begun looking at ways to improve our system and products to detect and filter out more types of potentially sensitive data."
Georgetown Law Intellectual Property Rights clinic staff attorney Lindsey Barrett said "This is the kind of practice that highlights how consent isn’t a sufficient guardrail against privacy violations," adding "No one reads privacy policies because they encounter too many of them for that to be reasonable, and even if they did, the policies are poorly written or won’t tell them what they need to know."
"It can be embarrassing or foster low-self esteem to be barraged with targeted ads for acne medication, but how is facebook letting advertisers target people based on what information those apps glean on their contraception?" said Barrett. "Who else is Facebook sharing that information with? There's a dignity issue but there's also a discrimination issue, all of which come into pl" y when we're talking about why individual privacy rights are important."