Since the term was coined in 2016, femtech, a sub-sector in health technology dedicated to creating solutions that address female wellbeing continues to gain traction and attract VC funding globally. In Africa, however, the space is still very much in its budding phase. This segment is dedicated to telling stories of innovators, their solutions, the investors and challenges of the sector as it blooms in the continent.
A pop up appears on Derin’s phone on a Saturday evening. It’s Flo. She says hi and asks Derin if she feels her ovulation.
“Let’s talk about some interesting changes that are happening to your body during this time,” she says. Derin does not feel her ovulation nor has she noticed any interesting changes happening to her body. Flo says it will begin any day now, a mature egg leaving her ovary ready to be fertilized. Flo would know because over the past three years or more, Derin has been using the Flo app to track her menstrual cycle.
In the course of the last three years, Flo has allowed her keep track of her cycle, notifying her days before it begins and helping her track how her body changes during the cycle. The information she kept note of helped diagnose her for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a more severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and to consciously tackle it month after month.
Over time however, she began to worry about all the information she was sharing with Flo, about how much Flo knew and what else her data could be used for asides helping keep track of her body’s workings.
Flo, like many other period trackers, are among a class of early femtech products that sought to help women monitor and improve their reproductive health. Launched in 2015, Flo tracks menstruation, predicts menstrual cycles, alerts you to when you are most likely to become pregnant, and supports you through early motherhood and menopause. It is also keeping track of things like your body weight, water intake, exercise and sleep activities, monitoring the state of your mental health via your PMS symptoms and is able to analyse these data and present them in graphs or charts. Users are therefore inputting sensitive reproductive health records into the app daily or monthly from ovulation information to body weight, anxiety levels and frequency/kinds of sexual activity.
Over the years, Flo has created a Premium plan (you can access more content or take courses among other things) and added a personalised AI-powered chatbot so when Derin taps the pop-up on her phone, Aunt Flo (a colloquial term for periods) can chat with her briefly about ovulation and what changes she can expect to see in the coming days.
Oftentimes, period tracking apps request for and have access to other information asides what you input in the app sometimes, without your knowledge. And in the age of data mongering, this should concern anyone who regularly uses a period tracker.
Now, privacy policies are boring documents. And there are too many of them to read these days as we continually welcome new digital consumer products into our lives. But it is important to understand how your private medical records are being used, whether cycle predictions are worth the trade off and what you can do to protect yourself.
How ‘safe’ are period trackers to use?
Consumer Reports, earlier this year, examined the most popular period tracking apps and their privacy policies. They checked for clarity, comprehensiveness, transparency, user control over their information and data security.
While a number of the apps do not directly share the information you input with third parties, the information they do collect can end up in the hands of one of the Big Five through marketing integrations with an organisation like AppsFlyer and for some apps, even very sensitive health and sexual records can be shared.
“To be clear, these third party services are not permitted to use the data for any other purpose than to help us run Clue.”
A number of period tracking apps do not require login information to use the app each time like your banking app would, a practice Consumer Reports says is not well-meaning to users’ data but which might in fact, be beneficial. Without an account, your information is not stored on the app’s servers and so limits the extent to which it can be exploited.
In an age of data harvesting and leaks, digital footprints, algorithmic profiling and targeted ads, Derin is right to be concerned about the safety of her data largely because, oftentimes, one is not even aware to what extent this data is exploited to their career, health or social detriment.
Laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) and Nigeria Data Protection Regulation offer users some respite with the ability to modify what and how their data is used but can be limiting if an app’s origin does not bring it under either law.
Here’s what you can do
Perhaps it is best to lean towards apps that do not require account creation hence is incapable of storing your information in its servers.
Also be mindful of the information you leave an Aunt Flo and only provide what you deem is necessary to predict the information you want from your tracker.
Update your apps regularly as well so bugs that may expose your information to exploitative third parties can be rectified before they pose any harm.