How to Use Period and Pregnancy Tracking Apps Safely

In February 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a popular period tracker app, Clue, to market itself as birth control (PDF, 1.1 MB) and become the first ever all-digital contraceptive available to U.S. consumers. This approval helps bring contraception into the digital age, as the app is designed to make monitoring fertility more convenient. 

In general, apps for tracking pregnancy and menstrual cycles can be empowering for patients, according to Sara Bates-King, a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) and family nurse practitioner (FNP).

“As long as we’re using the app as a tool that helps provide more information and then helps guide the providers and patients in making decisions, I think it can be really helpful,” she said. 

However, with any health tracking app, there are inherent security risks to sharing personal data online. Shiu-Kai Chin, Ph.D. is a professor in the Syracuse University College of Engineering & Computer Science and studies policies and levers that can help protect businesses’ and individuals’ data online, among other topics.  

“As soon as you connect to the Internet of Things [through an app], you have access to the world,” he said. “And the world has access to you.”

Specifically, the world can access the information you share online, including in health tracking apps. Because menstrual cycle and pregnancy data may be sensitive to users, Chin encourages users to consider the risks and benefits before downloading a period or pregnancy tracker. With insights from the professor and contributing health expert Bates-King, CNM, FNP, ARNP, this guide from the online Graduate Engineering Programs at Syracuse University can help users better understand the technology. 

Please note that this article is for informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their health care provider before following any of the information provided.

Are Pregnancy and Period Tracking Apps Safe?

“Generally speaking, health information has a number of sensitivities,” Chin said. Whether something is considered safe can depend on who is reading the data and if they can connect a particular data point to a specific user.

For example, many people routinely share health information with their care providers, who enter this data into their software and patient portals. These systems are covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects sensitive patient data from theft and misuse.

Users should keep in mind that HIPAA does not cover health tracking apps (PDF, 576 KB), unless the app was developed by a health care provider, health plan or health care clearinghouse (or a business operating on their behalf). 

“When I’m using an app on my phone, and there are no really explicit protection guarantees, then I have to assume that just anybody can have it,” Chin said. 

Depending on the app’s privacy policy, third parties may be given access to users’ intimate data—including employers, researchers, advertisers or researchers—which could have unexpected results. For example, the Washington Post reported in 2019 that the pregnancy app Ovia allowed employers to monitor workers’ pregnancies, leading some experts to worry that companies could use the data to scale back coverage or raise rates. In a New York Times column titled “The Internet Thinks I’m Still Pregnant,” one woman described disclosing her pregnancy in a tracker app and then recording a miscarriage. Months later, a baby formula company sent her a care package, timed to arrive near her due date; the advertiser apparently did not realize she had experienced a loss.

To find out what information a specific app collects and shares with other parties, users should review its privacy policy and “terms and conditions” documents. 

How to Choose a Pregnancy or Period Tracker App

When choosing a pregnancy- or period-tracking app, Chin recommends balancing the user experience with the potential level of risk. 

Non-Digital Methods (i.e., a paper calendar)

Creating your own non-digital system of tracking your period or pregnancy may be the least risky option. “If [this data] is sensitive to you, maybe we should consider just doing it ourselves or at least only using applications that state outright that this information goes nowhere else,” Chin said. 

Considerations:

  • Health data is not online
  • Personal identifiers (e.g., email address) are not online
  • Time is required to manually track menstrual cycles

App Without Account

Some apps allow individuals to use their services without linking an email address or other personal identifying information. The user’s health data is stored only on their device, not on the developer’s servers. Chin said to look for this “anonymous” option as a minimum. 

Considerations:

  • Health data is stored only on the device
  • Personal identifiers (e.g., email address) are not connected to health data
  • Menstrual cycles are tracked digitally
  • Users may have reduced access to app’s features

App With Account, Sharing Limited Data

Creating an account puts both your personal identifiers and health data online. Limiting how much data you provide can help mitigate your risk. 

Considerations:

  • Health data is stored on app’s servers and could be shared according to app’s privacy policy
  • Personal identifiers (e.g., email address) are linked to health data
  • Menstrual cycles are tracked digitally
  • Users have greater access to app’s features 

App With Account, No Limits on Data Shared

Using an account with no limits on the personal data you share may be the riskiest option.

Considerations:

  • Health data is stored on app’s servers and could be shared according to app’s privacy policy
  • Personal identifiers (e.g., email address) are linked to health data
  • Menstrual cycles are tracked digitally
  • Users have full access to app’s features 

How to Use Pregnancy and Period Tracker Apps Safely 

For those who decide to use period and pregnancy tracker apps, Chin and Bates-King encouraged users to consider a number of questions.

Health Questions to Consider

Is the app accurate?

According to a 2016 Obstetrics & Gynecology study, most free menstrual cycle tracking apps do not accurately predict a woman’s cycle. Instead of making a prediction based on the average length of a user’s menstrual cycle, many of these apps base their estimate on a default 28-day cycle, which is not accurate for all women. A healthy menstrual cycle can last 21 to 35 days.

Does your provider have a recommendation?

Health professionals see hundreds of patients in a year and may have useful referrals for safe and accurate apps. “Consult your provider and say, ‘I’m thinking of using this app. Do you think it’s reasonable?’” said Chin.

Do any organizations certify the app?

Online lists of the “best period tracking apps” may not be informed by experts. When evaluating an app, look for endorsements from groups focused on patient health, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or privacy and security groups.

Can you streamline how many symptoms you track?

Period and pregnancy apps can track many variables, from energy and emotions to cravings and skin quality. Bates-King recommends focusing on just the metrics relevant to your care. For example, users with painful periods may benefit from tracking severity of cramps, heaviness of flow and digestion problems. “As long as the patient doesn’t feel overwhelmed, I think more information is great, and we can sort through it together,” she said. 

Privacy and Security Questions to Consider

Does the app have a privacy policy?

In a study of 184 free apps designed to help consumers manage their medications, researchers found that only 63 (34.2%) had a privacy policy—a legal document laying out a company’s data collection practices. Having one in place suggests the developers have considered how your personal data is gathered and used. Chin recommends this as a minimum standard for an app that collects personal data.

What data does the app collect and connect to your identity?

On the App Store or Google Play Store, check the app’s bio page for information about its privacy practices—specifically, what information it collects and links to your personal identifiers. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with a third-party knowing these details.

What can you learn about the company?

Read through the app’s terms and conditions, and find any mission and purpose statements available online. Ask yourself if their values align with yours. 

Can you create a password?

If you have to create an account, choose an app that allows users to set a password. To keep it safe, the HIPAA Journal recommends using a password management system because a skilled hacker can often crack a user-generated password within 10 minutes.

Can you withhold any personal identifying information?

Before filling out a form, note which entries are required and which are optional. Give as little identifying information (e.g., your last name or postal code) as possible. The fewer personal tags on your health data, the more private your information will be.

By understanding how period- and pregnancy-tracking apps work, women can make the best decisions for their health and online privacy.

Citation for this content: Syracuse University’s online master’s in computer engineering