Calling All Women: Who Controls Your Data?

By Mick Champayne

January 30, 2020

As female-targeted apps proliferate, users should demand that tech companies be accountable for how they use intimate data.

I use nine apps to track certain aspects of my life: Apple Health for my steps, Apple Bedtime for my sleep, Care/of for vitamins, Lifesum for counting my macros and water intake, Nike Run Club for my workouts, Google Sheets for my training, Happy Scale for my weight, Co — Star for my horoscope (for the sake of monitoring and predicting my “mood”), and Clue for my period. These are a handful of the apps available for expressing my life in data and algorithms.

There are over 250,000 health and wellness apps in app stores, and a fundamental component of all of them is tracking behaviors, encouraging the self-monitoring of mind and bodily processes. Gathering data puts the power of a curated life in the hands of people in a way never before possible.

And women are a prime audience for this new class of digital health solutions — dubbed femtech. They’re 75% more likely to use digital tools for health care than men. As women become more empowered and have agency over their own well-being, there’s a huge interest in using tech to demystify the female body.

More than 100 million women monitor their cycles on their phones and, as a result, are creating big new data sets that can be researched and analyzed. I use Clue, which, along with Flo, are the most popular choices. Users can track all sorts of different things: cravings, digestion, hair, skin, emotions, motivation, and sex. With the help of artificial intelligence, these period-tracking apps serve up personalized and tailored content about your cycle. Clue, in particular, has amassed the largest data set about menstruation ever and has been sharing their data with academic institutions like Columbia University, Oxford University, and the Kinsey Institute for studies on whether menstrual cycles can predict disease.

But period-tracking is just the tip of the iceberg. Femtech has seen a wave of innovative and disruptive technologies — from fertility testing and pregnancy planning to connected breast pumps and sexual wellness — which will revolutionize the way women live their day-to-day lives. And investors see femtech as a big boon to business, pouring an estimated $1 billion into the category. With the confluence of femtech and digital-health innovation, new solutions women hadn’t dared to dream of are beginning to feel accessible, affordable, and within reach. Imagine a microchip implant that could monitor a woman’s body instead of manually logging stats and symptoms. Or an inconspicuous device that could spot-relieve period pain.

And there are certainly some bright spots in the femtech space already: Hooha, the smart tampon dispenser, is bringing women’s bathrooms into the 21st century. Borne out of the universal (and mortifying) experience of an unexpected visit by Aunt Flow, women caught empty-handed can simply text a number to dispense a free tampon. The antiquated dispenser got a serious upgrade: It uses IoT to track tampon-supply levels and alert the facilities to restock, holds up to 60 tampons (three times the number of its predecessors), and has a deceptively simple window pane. Steph Loffredo, the inventor, says the window works three-fold: “[It] fosters transparency, combats period stigma, and lets users know if the machine is stocked. Not exactly revolutionary, but one of those minute details that I cared about.”

Dreaming of a possible future of more empowered, unburdened women is a fun and optimistic exercise, and a preferable future I’d personally love to live in. But unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.

The elephant in the room is that femtech is inherently intertwined with society and politics. To start, the majority of femtech companies and startups are still a boys club. In tech, women are severely underrepresented, so almost all of the period-tracker apps have been created by men: Glow was founded by PayPal’s Max Levchin and four other men, and Flo was created by brothers from Belarus, Dmitry and Yuri Gurski.

When women don’t have a seat at the table, it has a trickle-down effect. “The design of these tools often doesn’t acknowledge the full range of women’s needs,” says Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University. “There are strong assumptions built into their design that can marginalize a lot of women’s sexual health experiences,” such as relying on dated visual clichés like the color pink, not accounting for irregular cycles, or designing only for cisgender women.

While the tech industry is largely dominated by men, Clue, founded by Ida Tin, is one of few period-tracking apps actually developed by a woman. When Tin first began developing her product, nobody took her seriously, saying it’s a “female product, a niche thing.” Now investors are rushing to capitalize on women’s data. New reports have exposed data-privacy breaches and how these apps have been exploiting women’s data to build business and ad models. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Flo turned out to be sharing users’ personal health information with Facebook to create targeted ads. A Flo-using teenager might get ads on tampon use, while a 30-year-old might be pitched ovulation tests.

In contrast, Tin strongly opposes selling or running targeted ads, which she deems invasive. The business model for many health trackers is “all about selling the data in ways that the user doesn’t know about,” she says “We’ve seen so many examples where we learn we cannot trust companies.”

Another health-monitoring app, Ovia is transparent about how they’re capitalizing on pregnancy data. The Washington Post reports that companies can purchase a “de-identified” version to include in employee benefits packages. In return, they — and the insurance company — receive anonymous user data.

Health and privacy experts have raised concerns that such data could result in companies scaling back benefits based on projected costs, or discriminate against women even considering pregnancy.

The femtech market is likely to keep sliding toward ever-more-intensive data mining, and the tracking and commercialization of virtually every aspect of our lives is here to stay. But the people creating these products have a responsibility to be open about how the data is used, and women should have a chance to opt out of supplying their data. As Tin told Fortune, “People share data about the most intimate parts of their lives. They talk about their mood, they talk about their pain, they talk about their sex lives. If you ask people to share this data, you’ve got to have ethical conversations about what you’re going to do with that data.”

By Mick Champayne Visual Design Lead at Huge + aspiring futurist.