• Dr. Timothy Smith

Article: How Your Apps Could Incriminate You

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Someday we will realize there are no secrets on the Internet. We might not be seen, but our devices are being monitored, and that means we are only a government request from being exposed.” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a professor at American University Washington College of Law (washingtonpost.com)

On May 2, 2022, POLITICO released a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States signaling the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade. (politico.com) Overturning Roe would remove the fifty-year-old constitutional protection of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. If overturned, the legality of abortion would be left to individual states to decide. Some states, such as New York and California, will preserve the right to choose, whereas thirteen states, including Louisiana, Texas, and Missouri, will enact laws that restrict or completely ban the right to choose. (time.com) Moreover, criminalizing abortion incentivizes a frightening element of surveillance of women by those enforcing those laws to determine if an abortion occurred or may occur.

Millions of people use smartphone apps for a wide variety of reasons. Apps exist for playing games, navigation, health monitoring, listening to music, shopping, etc. Apps can be fun and convenient. However, apps generate vast amounts of data regarding our behavior. Information about where we go, what we purchase, what we listen to, what we search for on the Internet, and more builds profiles of people that artificial intelligence can use to predict our future actions. So many apps are free because they collect your data and use it to attract advertisers or enhance their artificial intelligence. However, data collected from apps appeal to other groups—law enforcement and government agencies. Tech companies routinely get requests for data. According to the Google Transparency Report, Google received nearly 70,000 requests for data over the six months between July and December 2021; 45,778 of these requests fell under the subpoena or search warrant categories. Furthermore, Google disclosed data for over 80% of the demands made. (google.com)

In light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, one class of apps needs special attention—women’s health apps. The Apple App Store currently offers over 90 period tracker apps. Apps like Flo, Clover, and Ovia require users to provide health information such as ovulation, period symptoms, and body temperature. Flo also converts to a pregnancy tracker when pregnant. Such information about health status will not be protected. These apps do not qualify as medical devices, leaving the data unprotected by HIPPA medical privacy laws. Furthermore, the terms of use of this and other apps declare that the company is not a licensed medical care provider. (flo.health) The sensitive data collected by these tracker apps have no real protection from access by law enforcement and government agencies. Given that some states are considering criminally charging women for abortion, data collected by these apps could be used as evidence to incriminate individuals in the court of law (The Guardian).

In early May 2022, a leaked draft opinion from the United States Supreme Court indicates that the constitutional protection of a woman’s right to choose her reproductive status will get overturned this year. Such a change will leave the legality of abortion up to individual states. A number of states, such as Louisiana and Texas, stand to criminalize abortion without the protections of Roe. Smartphone apps provide many services, from gaming to health tracking, and such apps can learn a great deal about our current and future behavior. For this reason, advertisers thrive on such information for targeted marketing campaigns. However, law enforcement and government agencies also have a strong appetite for personal data for surveillance and criminal evidence. The tens of thousands of data subpoenas issued to tech companies every year underscore the value of such data. In light of the pending reversal of Roe v. Wade, women’s health apps such as period/pregnancy trackers pose a real threat to privacy and create a window into a woman’s reproductive health that law enforcement and government agencies can access through subpoena and search warrants. The tracker apps may provide a convenient service, but such convenience should be balanced against a significant loss of privacy.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington. You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.