The Supreme Court let the states make their own abortion laws (Tasos Katopodis/Getty)
Apple’s new smartwatches could bring new health features for women, but is it the right time for them in the US?
If the rumors about the eighth generation of Apple Watches are true, the company may soon be able to control access to the intimate information of its users and their fertile periods, according to Mashable.
Rumors from the Wall Street Journal and Apple experts like Mark Gorman and Ming Chi say the new watch may include features related to women’s health, such as fertility planning. This would be a natural evolution of the feature that allows users to track their menstrual cycle, which appeared in the “WatchOS 6”.
However, unlike the menstrual cycle tracking feature that relies on machine learning, which reads the data added by the user, the fertility planning feature will use a sensor that measures fluctuations in body temperature associated with the user’s ovulation cycle.
This represents a significant and interesting advancement, joining the Apple Watch’s many features, which measure the level of oxygen in the blood, heart rate, and even sleep patterns. However, according to Mashable, current conditions in the United States require that information like this be treated with more confidentiality, and Apple’s announcement may raise a lot of concerns unless you treat this problem with a lot of sensitivity.
On June 24, the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to abortion, declaring that abortion is not a constitutional right of women that must be protected by federal law. She noted that each state can allow or restrict this type of operation, as it sees fit. This is a return to what was prevalent before the seventies of the last century.
Since the decision was issued, 12 states have reactivated previous anti-abortion laws, while the right to perform the procedure has been restricted or temporarily suspended in a number of other states, and thus the authorities in the states have the right to prosecute women who perform abortions as a felony.
As a result, the question of what big tech companies do with users’ health data has become a critical issue for many in the United States.
This summer, Facebook handed over private Messenger messages between a teenage girl and her mother to authorities as evidence that she had violated Nebraska’s abortion laws. At the time, Meta issued a statement saying that there was no mention of abortion in the search warrant, and that it had complied with an investigation into “allegations of illegally burning and burying a dead infant.”
In a world where tech giants cooperate with authorities and provide them with information that helps them enforce laws, it is easy to imagine how tracking data, especially like that waiting on the Apple Watch, could lead to arrest and conviction for abortion.
“The biggest challenge in reproductive rights right now is the fact that the data being collected about you is not yours,” said Jennifer King, PhD, of the Stanford Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Data that is no longer owned by the user becomes vulnerable to hacking and data breaches. It can also be sold to third parties, with or without your knowledge. Last year, menstrual-tracking app Flo reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for misleading users about who they share their data with.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Flo informed Facebook every time of users who were going through their period, or who had made signs that they wanted to get pregnant.
Modern gadgets tend not to just store information of this kind on a mobile phone. In cases like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Search, the data goes to a server or cloud and is stored rather than deleted.
“If Apple is going against the tide and designing this new feature in such a way that data is stored encrypted exclusively on the watch, rather than in the cloud, that is a huge improvement,” King said.
For its part, Apple says that the health features in its current watch protect user data in several ways: All health and fitness data is encrypted, except for a basic medical card that provides essential information for paramedics in an emergency. Also, if the user backs up his health data to iCloud, it will be encrypted.
All of these features are accessed through the Health app, which is also available on iPhones.
In general, Apple focuses its devices and services on user privacy. When using the Apple smart assistant, Siri, it records the user’s voice only on his phone, unlike Amazon’s Alexa, which sends this data to the company’s servers.
After the decision to repeal the right to abortion, there was a growing concern about menstrual-tracking apps and how user data could be used to bring criminal charges in states where abortion has been banned or restricted.
“The lack of consumer privacy protections means that the risks extend far beyond using Apple Watch functions or other apps,” said Nicole Turner-Lee, a researcher in governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. She added, “People in states that prohibit abortion can be criminalized by accessing the content of their search history, text messages, and more.”
Period-tracking apps were quick to reassure users that their data was safe. For its part, Flow has launched the Anonymous Mode feature, which removes any identifiable information. Another app, Glo, confirmed that it never, and never will, sell data, while a third app, Stardust, declared it “the first known app to offer end-to-end encryption for all users.”
Currently, no menstrual tracking app has yet been required to hand over its users’ data to a criminal investigation, which means there is no legal precedent yet. However, following the incident of data delivery by “Facebook”, which remained in the dark, far from the spotlight, it was noted that there were many gaps, and imagine the direction that things could take.
“If you put it in comparison, the privacy and services provided by Apple are much better than the third-party applications,” Turner told me. She continued: “Their “health data” is encrypted and inaccessible, and they also have a past history of respecting user privacy and of not unlocking iPhones for law enforcement purposes.
Despite widespread uncertainty around digital privacy and reproductive rights, technology companies are pressing ahead with developing biometric fingerprinting techniques.
Recently, Amazon expanded its experiment to test palm recognition technology in Whole Foods stores, and Facebook wants to track biometric data in Metaverse, according to the Financial Times.
According to King, companies are seeking to develop these technologies in order to gain more profitable data and keep users engaged with their products. In her view, the current climate of turmoil, where what was legal one day becomes a crime the next, forces people to think more about how their data spreads.
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