The Flo period tracker app enables “anonymous mode”. Will it solve user privacy issues?

ByLance T. Lee

Sep 19, 2022

Users accessing the Flo female health app can now do so without entering their name or other identifiers that may be associated with their period tracker and other data.

Flo Health, which operates popular period and ovulation tracking, said last week it had released the new “anonymous mode” feature in an effort to further protect sensitive reproductive health information.

Menstrual trackers like Flo came under the microscope following the reversal of Roe v. Wade. App users fear that data about their fertility, missed periods and more could be used against them in states where abortion may be criminalized.

Flo’s anonymous option is one of many methods these apps use to better protect post-Roe user privacy. However, a privacy expert warns that this is unlikely to fully address these concerns, largely due to the apps’ storage policies and the type of data they collect.

“Companies like to use the word ‘anonymization’ to describe removing names, email addresses, or other identifiers from data, but anonymization is not a technically meaningful term,” said Justin Sherman, senior fellow at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. who leads the school’s data broker project. “There are still many ways to link this information to individuals.”

Flo, for her part, launched the feature a few days after Roe’s cancellation, saying at the time that it would be available in the coming weeks. Users who choose to switch to anonymous mode can still access their data, including personalized insights and predictions, without any personal information linked to their accounts, such as name, email address or personal details. other identifiers, according to an FAQ on Flo’s website.

But as its privacy policy notes, the company still stores user data in the cloud, a potentially less secure method than storing it locally on the user’s device.

That said, Flo seeks to protect this information in a number of ways, such as encrypting the data while in transit to Flo’s servers. Additionally, data that can be used to identify someone is separated from data stored in the app.

Anonymous mode is designed to provide another layer of protection by dissociating all personal information, such as user ID and IP address, from stored health data. “No single party processing user data for anonymous mode accounts will have complete information about who the user is and what they are trying to access,” the company says.

Flo also told users that they can request deletion of their old account by emailing customer support. This means that someone who downloaded the app, used it for several months, then wants to delete it and download it again can start over.

Still, such measures may not entirely prevent app users from being identified, Sherman said, because device information such as IP address and mobile advertising ID, which are among the points of data that Flo says it collects, can be used to link recorded information to those who have entered it.

“There are certainly many different privacy and other statistical techniques to mask the person behind information,” he noted. “But deleting someone’s name doesn’t prevent someone from finding out who it is.”

This isn’t the first time Flo has faced complications over her privacy policies.

In 2021, Flo Health agreed with the Federal Trade Commission to share sensitive health data with Facebook, although it was not transparent about this practice in its usage policies. The settlement follows a 2019 investigation by The Wall Street Journal from Flo’s Period & Ovulation Tracker, which the company claims has 48 million active users.

Still, the company insists it’s committed to long-term privacy and security, and that a spring audit of its privacy practices as part of the FTC settlement found that its practices are consistent with its publicly stated privacy policy.

A Consumer Reports review in May this year, which included Flo and a number of other period-tracking apps in the United States, found that they had faltered in terms of privacy, mainly because they have cloud-based storage and allow third-party tracking. .

Additionally, a research team from the Organization for the Review of Care and Health Apps, a company that tests health apps for the UK’s National Health Service, recently found that 84% of period-tracking apps studied share data with third parties and almost two-thirds share it with the authorities for legal obligations.

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