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Why we should worry that Facebook now knows when you’re on your period

By Micha Frazer-Carroll

Feb 28, 2019

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In what seems like an endless string of invasions of privacy from Facebook, as of this week we now know that not even our menstrual cycles are safe. That’s right, Facebook may be using our periods against us through a period-tracking app called Flo, which was revealed to be sharing data with Facebook. 25 million active users were potentially affected by the breach.

It’s something we’ve heard before, from Cambridge Analytica to the revelations that Netflix and Spotify also use sensitive data. With Flo, the nature of the data-share is particularly shocking—as the issue of periods relates to marginalised people, with women and people assigned female at birth overwhelmingly affected. This is an example of how biotech is being exploited and weaponised against us as the closest, most embodied, most intimate parts of our lives are being intertwined with technology.

A good question that springs from this is: what is the purpose of sharing this data, exactly? When we consider the ethics of more targeted advertising, one of the clearest dangers is that it makes us buy more because it’s so accurate. But regarding data on how we menstruate, the answer is still unclear as to how brands use this for their advantage barring the obvious cliches of advertising things menstruating women might want, crave or need. Flo allows users to input information when they’re trying to conceive, and also has a ‘pregnancy mode’ for when users are pregnant—a function that would be incredibly lucrative for marketing in the big business of babies.

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Another question commonly asked about Facebook’s relationship with data sharing is whether it’s right to only see it as damaging to consumers. Could the benefit of better advertising be mutual? After all, as consumers, we’re more likely to be exposed to content that we’re actually interested in buying, with less irritating, irrelevant clutter on our feeds. This carries to an extent; more than once I’ve had nudges to revisit pages for products I’ve been considering buying, and been thankful for the nudge, as I’d forgotten.

But in the case of Flo, there’s a clear difference between consensual data sharing and user exploitation. There’s also the ethical issue of consumers constantly and subconsciously being pushed to buy in social spheres. User rights lie at the crux of the issue. With huge corporate forces at play, as consumers and platform users, we deserve to know what data is going where, and to provide consent before it happens. It’s true that the general public, myself included, are largely unaware of the real-world meaning of the fine print and what it entails as far as our data. Yet it’s dangerous that this lack of knowledge is being exploited.

While it feels like a new revelation comes every week when it comes to the sharing of our data, is there anything we can do as users? There are some steps we can take, like utilising the scores of information that exist on in-built tools for protecting our data. We can also ensure we’re as literate as we can be in terms and conditions, and privacy policies, as well as actually ensuring we pay attention when scandals like this break, rather than rolling our eyes and muttering “typical”.

We can also continue to lobby organisations to do better. #DeleteFacebook sprung up around this time last year when Cambridge Analytica broke. While staying away from Facebook doesn’t exactly solve the issue, the Flo data-share affected Facebook users and non-users alike; dissenting from platforms that don’t respect our privacy can still symbolise protest.

It’s true that the tools in themselves may not be harmful, but unfortunately what we’re seeing is the same old structures churning out the same old inequalities. The burden to fix it should not solely lie on us—unless we hurl our smartphones into the sea, we cannot outright halt the exploitation of our data. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t weigh up what we can and can’t live without. Reflecting on Flo, I know I’ll personally be sticking with my calendar.

Micha Frazer-Carroll is arts and culture editor at gal-dem and writes for HuffPost U.K.