Abortion surveillance only incidentally involves period-trackers

It’s all your digital stuff, plus snitchy friends and doctors.

Cory Doctorow


A Planned Parenthood clinic; over the roofline, we see a giant glaring red eye of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey; it has lines radiating from it that wash out the sky. Image: Paul Sableman (modified) https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/6149265334 CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ Cryteria (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg CC BY 3.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

I get it. The deeper we get into this GOP christofascist Handmaid’s Tale LARP, the more it feels like we are living in a dystopian novel and the more draw on stories to understand our experience. The idea that a cyberpunk Red State sheriff — Boss Hogg meets Robocop — would use period-tracking apps for dragnet abortion surveillance is a great setup for a novel, but it’s not very reflective of reality.

I’m a novelist and I work on public policy, and the difference is that novels are very, very simplified. They tend to work in linear, verse-verse-chorus fashion, where causes beget effects in a way that is easy to understand; if a cause-effect relationship is complexified, it in service to a surprise ending or plot-twist — it’s not just par for the course.

In actual public policy fights, things are really messy. I’m not saying that we don’t live in a causal universe, but I am saying that figuring out which intervention will produce what outcome is a matter of informed guesswork and requires constant iteration and revision.

That’s not just because of the complexity of the real world, either — it’s also because real world policy fights are adversarial. Every move you make begets a countermove from your adversary. If your adversary is attacking you on one front, moving defenses there may not do you any good — not if you have another flank the attacker can costlessly shift to.

Which brings me to period-tracking apps and abortion surveillance. It’s 100% true that many period tracking apps are privacy dumpster-fires. Over and over again, investigations of period-tracking apps have found an indefensible mix of poor security practices and indiscriminate data collection, usage, sale and sharing, compounded by outright lies from the vendors:


But just because period-tracking apps could be a way to trawl for people who might have had abortions, it doesn’t follow that getting rid of your period-tracking app will make you safe. Giving up automated period-tracking imposes a…