Unless you still hibernate in a world of landlines and flag-down taxis, you will know that Facebook is the ultimate busybody.
It knows more about you than your family and friends will ever do: when you last logged in, which social events you were invited to, the cat-snuggling-up-with-rabbit video links that you click on every Friday night and how you had a wonderful time in the Maldives in 2014. Oh, it also knows what you look like.
And if you use a FemTech app like period and fertility trackers, there is a chance now that Facebook knows how your ovaries are behaving every month (status: “it’s complicated”).
In a now-viral article that first appeared on Buzzfeed News, Privacy International, a UK-based advocacy group which aims to “promote the human right of privacy throughout the world”, revealed that a few widely used menstruation apps were feeding intimate user details to Facebook via the latter’s Software Development Kit (SDK).
The SDK lets tech developers track conversion, collect user data and show targeted ads — though a Facebook spokesperson told Privacy International that the platform requires app developers to be upfront with users about the information that they are sharing with Facebook. Also, it has systems in place to detect and delete certain types of ultra-sensitive details like passwords and phone numbers.
But what can go through are intimate data like your monthly cycles, your preferred form of birth control and much more.
One of these apps mentioned by Privacy International was Maya. The app, which is said to have more than five million downloads on Google Play alone, has since removed the Facebook SDK feature from its app, according to Privacy International.
Before this, the moment you logged into the Maya app, Facebook could start gleaning precious, marketable details about you: that you are a female, one who is still having periods and one who is either planning or avoiding the baby dancing act. Some users also key in how they feel, whether they experience dreadful “that-time-of-the-month” symptoms like acne or swelling, what their cervical mucus looks like and the type of contraceptives they use – all confidential medical and health data that goes to Facebook.
Another app, MIA Fem, was also found by Privacy International to have shared user data with Facebook.
On the MIA Fem app, you may be asked about habits from whether you smoke to whether you use tampons. According to Privacy International, this data does not go to Facebook. Instead, all this information allows the app to suggest the most relevant articles to its users and it’s these articles that are shared with Facebook. So, in an indirect way, the social media platform then knows that you are interested in reading more about fertility diets and the least vanilla sexual positions, for instance.
In fact, some of these apps do indicate — in convoluted legalese — in their privacy policies that user data is sometimes used to enable advertisers to display the right ads to the right target audience. But of course, most of us may not read (or comprehend) all of this or even any of this.
Advertisers love such user data because they get to know when you are trying to conceive (hello, folic acid supplement ads), when you are feeling famished (maybe that’s why those fast food ads featuring mouth-watering fried chicken keep popping up two days before your period starts) and when you are expecting (suddenly, you get a flurry of cute baby cot ads on your FemTech app, Facebook and Instagram).
“So what if the world knows I have a regular or irregular cycle?”
Now, what do period and fertility app users in Singapore feel about this covert invasion of privacy?
We asked 10 women in their thirties and forties who regularly use these apps — not including Maya or MIA Fem — to track their periods, predict ovulation and improve their chances of conceiving.
The rest of the women were neutral about the idea of having their data shared. The general consensus: unlike credit card or residential address details, menstrual and ovulation data won’t make them vulnerable to fraud, stalking or harassment.
Felicia Tan, who works in marketing, reasons: “No one can stalk me or steal from me just by using my period data… I think!”
To Veron Kho, a manager who uses Glow, having her monthly cycle and ovulation data shared with Facebook “is not as bad as having my credit card details leaked”. She quips: “So what if the world knows I have a regular or irregular cycle? I don’t have anything to hide or be ashamed of!”
In fact, some app users like Kho are okay with their data being used as advertising intel if it means that the right ads pop up in her feed. “If the ads are on suitable products that can help me, it could even be meaningful.”
Says communications professional Rachael Cheong: “If it means that useful ads get pushed to my feed, then that’s okay?”
For civil servant Tan Min Yan, it’s also about living in an era “where I assume every movement we make on social media is being tracked for marketing purposes”.
“I feel that we should be aware that once you input something into an app, there are terms and conditions allowing the company to do whatever they deem fit with it.”
And Tan doesn’t feel very vulnerable if her data is shared with Facebook because she uses the app P Tracker only to track her period dates. “This information isn’t as private as something like when I last had sex.”