Period-tracking apps are not for women

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“The design of these tools often doesn’t acknowledge the full range of women’s needs. There are strong assumptions built into their design that can marginalize a lot of women’s sexual health experiences,” Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, tells me in an email, after explaining that her period tracker couldn’t understand her pregnancy, “a several-hundred-day menstrual cycle.”

Levy coined the term “intimate surveillance” in an expansive paper on the topic in the Iowa Law Review in 2015. At the time, when she described intimate data collection as having passed from the state’s public health authorities to every citizen with a smartphone, she was mostly alone in her level of alarm. This was just after Apple Health launched (sans menstrual tracking), hailed as the future of medical care. But even before that, Levy argued, the “data-fication” of romantic and sexual behaviors was everywhere. There were smart pelvic floor exercisers that could pair with smartphones via Bluetooth. There were sex-tracking apps that quantified performance by counting thrusts and duration and “noise.”

“The act of measurement is not neutral,” Levy wrote. “Every technology of measurement and classification legitimates certain forms of knowledge and experience, while rendering others invisible.” Sex tracking apps and their ilk “simplify highly personal and subjective experiences to commensurable data points.”

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Google Knows Where You’ve Been, but Does It Know Who You Are?

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In August, The Associated Press published an investigation into how Google handles the data it collects, following a curious discovery by a graduate researcher at U.C. Berkeley. For years, the company has allowed users to control their “location history,” which stores a detailed record of where they’ve been, based primarily on their activity in Google Maps. This, the researcher suggested — and The A.P. confirmed — did not work as advertised. “Some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking,” the reporters found. The revelation has since resulted in at least one lawsuit, as well as renewed public criticism from lawmakers.

I came to resent this data in a number of ways: that a cache of coordinates from Google could trigger grief or joy — that was such a nice morning, up in the park, with all those dogs — or that it, rather than a friend or a co-worker or a missed stop on the train, would be what triggers a familiar guilty reminder that the city I live in is so much bigger than the routine I’ve created within it.

There were also moments, deep in this incidental personal data diary, when I almost wished for more — when I thought about how nice it would be to be able to zoom in even further, to get back into a room and look around. These moments were brief. An intensely personal diary is the sort of thing you could only be happy to discover in your own attic, in your own handwriting, not on the servers of a multibillion-dollar advertising corporation.

Should You Track Your Teen’s Location?

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Location tracking can, without question, damage the connection between parent and teenager. Research shows that adolescents who believe their parents have invaded their privacy go on to have higher levels of conflict at home. And teenagers who resent being trailed digitally sometimes disable location features, take pains to “spoof” their GPS, or leave their phones at friends’ houses to throw parents off their scent.

As a psychologist, I also worry that location tracking can confuse the question of who is mainly responsible for the safety of the roaming adolescent — the parent or the teenager? If parents decide against using location tracking, I encourage them to talk with their teenager about why.