Bodies made of Data

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Women have been tracking their menstrual cycles for a long time, even before the help of digital tools. An app, such as Clue or Flo, makes it easier to do so and additionally provides other health-related functions, such as birth control reminders and the ability to add and analyse symptoms of the menstrual cycle. For most, it is a helpful tool that lets them follow along their cycle, to look at the predictions of the dates of their next period and ovulation. Some women use it with the intent to conceive a child and some use it for the opposite – reminders about birth control and days when to be careful with sexual intercourse.

This critical piece focuses on the latter of the two – women that do not wish to get pregnant or to continue their pregnancy. I raise the attention to the possible dangers that these period tracking apps pose to women in the context of Roe v. Wade being overturned last year on June 24, 2022, meaning that women in the United States do not have the constitutional right to have an abortion anymore. In this essay I look at a news article published by Flora Garamvolgyi in The Guardian on “Why US women are deleting their period tracking apps” and how it exhibits the concept of “surveillance capitalism”.

Four days after Roe v. Wade was overturned in the United States, an article in The Guardian reported an upsurge in women deleting their period tracking apps. It raised the question on whether the apps’ users should be careful and delete them, because there is a notable grey area as to what the collected data is used for and who it can be sold to. The author of the article writes: “In a state where abortion is a crime, prosecutors could request information collected by these apps when building a case against someone.” As mentioned, currently the two of the most popular cycle tracking apps are Clue and Flo. Flo is a company based in Germany that operates under European laws, including GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), under which biometric and health related data are protected. Therefore, the risk of this company disclosing sensitive data with American authorities is less likely of a company outside of Europe. On the other hand, Clue is a company based in the US and potentially poses a risk to sell sensitive information about people who, according to the entered data, could be pregnant. However, Clue has since come out and said that they would be operating under European laws as well and no data without the user’s permission would be given to law enforcements or medical personnel. The author of the article explains that it might be best to use an app that is based in Europe rather than those who are based in the US because it would be harder for the authorities to request necessary information for prosecution. 

This case also exhibits ‘surveillance capitalism’ and highlights the importance of being mindful of our digital footprint. Evolution of capitalism and technology alongside each other has allowed capitalism to infiltrate every niche of consumption – it has turned intangible pieces like data in a server to something profitable for many companies. The product is both the data and the person producing it. While the article mentions that there have been data breaches or ‘data sharing for research purposes’ to Facebook, it does not elaborate more on the purpose for sharing such information. Facebook is known for multiple data-breaches and extensive ‘collection’ of data on almost three billion users.1

Not only is the politicisation of women’s bodies constantly seen ‘in the real world’, it also has been transferring to the digital world, putting constraints on women when they are conscious about their health.

There are a many systems in place that are functioning only because of capitalistic gains, diminishing the cultural and social aspects that make the experience humanising. I wonder what could be the effects in the future for the users of apps that generate biometric data, especially for people who are a part of a marginalised group. How can we remediate the anxiety that comes with the digitalisation of everything? Is privacy online an imagined construct perhaps?