Barely a year after Facebook’s involvement in a privacy scandal regarding the information of its users, a disturbing trend between female lifestyle apps and big tech companies, including Facebook, is surfacing.
Talia Shadwell, a British journalist, took to Twitter days ago to share an uncomfortable experience with her period tracker. She claimed that it may have been communicating very personal details to Facebook and other third party websites.
An ardent user of the undisclosed period tracker app, Talia tweeted that she suddenly started receiving Facebook ads in her news feed urging her to purchase baby products and healthcare products for pregnant women.
The ads were insistent which suggested that someone or an algorithm really thought she was pregnant.
Talia’s experience and suspicion, it turns out, are not entirely unfounded. A detailed research and analysis of menstruation apps was carried out recently by Privacy International.
According to Privacy International, at the time of the report, Maya and MIA shared very personal user information with Facebook and other third party sites. The information shared ranged from menstruation details to mood changes and sexual activity.
Responding to the research done by Privacy International, Facebook explained that the analytical information being collected from users was simply to improve the performance of apps.
“Developers can receive analytics that allow them to understand what the audience of their app enjoys and improve their apps over time. Developers may also use Facebook services to monetise their apps through Facebook Audience Network. Subject to that Facebook user’s prior consent, Facebook may also use this data to provide that user with more personalised ads.”Facebook
How far is too far in the quest to predict consumer behavior?
Privacy has always been an ongoing issue in tech, but it has especially been so in the last year. This is reinforced by the amount of responses Talia’s period tracker experience has elicited.
A review of reactions to Talia’s experience reveals that a lot of people have had similar issues and feel it is a violation of their privacy.
Healthcare concerns are generally expected to be handled with a high level of confidentiality which seems missing in period tracker apps.
Should app users take some responsibility?
It is easy to expect that app users take some share of the blame or pay more attention to the privacy policies of the tech products they use. But, for most users, privacy policies tend to be opaque. Users do not clearly understand what the policies mean and what the implications of the policies are.
That said, there has been some progress with protecting users’ data. Recently, amid harsh criticism, Facebook rolled out security updates that pay more attention to users’ data protection from third party apps and sites.
The social media platform added the ‘clear history’ option for its users to clear their own browsing history from their Facebook pages.
Mental health and privacy breaches in femtech apps
While the concerns of privacy are obvious, there are the less obvious mental health concerns that come as a result of erroneous or inaccurate data.
In the case of a user who has been ‘rightly’ found by her period app to be pregnant but then has a miscarriage, receiving pregnancy-related ads can be traumatic, according to users who have had the exact experience.
Enforcing respectable boundaries between a user’s personal information and cursory data collection to feed algorithms that are beneficial to consumers has become necessary and urgent.
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