Last month, a new investigation by Tortoise revealed that the police are testing women for abortion drugs and requesting data from period tracking apps after “unexplained pregnancy losses.”
Forensic reports showed that police requested tests to detect abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol in the blood and urine of women under investigation.
The findings come following the sentencing of Carla Foster. Foster was sentenced to 28 months in prison for illegally inducing an abortion during lockdown by taking the at-home pills at 32 to 34 weeks. (‘Pills-by-post’ abortions, introduced during lockdown, are now a permanent part of access to abortion in the UK). Foster already had three children, one of whom is autistic; she was released last summer after her sentence was reduced by the Court of Appeal.
Phoebe Davis, who wrote the Tortoise story, told Glamour UK she was “overwhelmed” to see the reach that the story had on social media: “It was clear from reactions to the piece that many people have serious concerns about the impact of these investigations on women who had just had a miscarriage or stillborn and the public interest in police resourcing these investigations. However, what was most striking was how many people – including women – appeared to not be aware that abortion remains criminalised in some circumstances.
“The protections many menstrual app companies put in place after Roe v Wade was overturned last year were reassuring, but they don’t necessarily stop police from taking that data directly from a seized device after an arrest. As one expert told me, there are also clear gendered elements to digital strip searches based on her research into police accessing victims’ phones in sexual abuse and assault cases.
“Menstrual tracking apps can also be incredibly helpful for people who have periods in tracking a variety of health conditions (endometriosis, PMDD, PCOS), so it is personally frustrating to see a potentially beneficial technology being involved in criminal investigations which may stop deter people from using the apps.”
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said: “It would be at the discretion of the senior investigating officer leading the case to determine which reasonable lines of enquiry to follow, which may include toxicology or digital data – depending on the merits of the specific case.”
What the apps say
So, how safe is our data? We approached three leading period tracker apps to ask.
Audrey Tsang, CEO of Clue, reiterated what they’d said after women in the US lost their constitutional right to abortion: that Clue has never disclosed users’ private health data to any authority and never will.
Tsang added: “We deeply understand how important it is to our users that we keep their data safe. So, no matter where our users are in the world, we will never allow their private health data to be used against them. This has been our policy and firm commitment since Clue’s foundation over a decade ago. As a Clue user, your data is not only protected by German and EU data privacy laws, but also by our willingness to stand up for our users and their health data privacy.”
“Criminalising women in this way compromises everyone and benefits no one.”
Sue Khan, vice president of privacy and data protection officer at Flo Health, said that at the time of writing, no one at Flo had been approached by the UK police for data.