Cycles of Influence
Decide who knows your body
Tracking menstrual cycles with an app has become very popular for anyone with a period, but period tracking has a long history dating back to prehistoric times. Whether you’re interested in general menstrual health or trying to avoid or achieve pregnancy, keeping track of your period is very helpful. It can give you important insights into your body and alert you to when something is off.
There are various ways to track your menstrual cycle with the help of technology, including cycle tracking apps (also known as period trackers or fertility tracking apps), but many options make this sensitive information available to companies, data brokers and governments.
In this Data Detox guide, you’ll explore ways to track your cycle and may even discover a method that works best for you—as well as how to do it as safely as possible.
Let’s cycle through this together!
What Is Cycle Tracking and Who Cares About It?
Cycle tracking is the process of noting down the dates and details of your menstruation and other related experiences such as pain, skin condition, mood, and temperature as they change throughout your cycle. This process can be referred to as cycle tracking, ovulation tracking, or period tracking.
A menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period (bleeding) and ends with the start of your next period. A menstrual cycle can range on average from 21 to 40 days. Throughout the cycle, you go through different phases as hormone levels change: pre-ovulatory, ovulatory, pre-menstrual phase, and finally menstruation or period. Each of these phases can have a different physical or emotional impact. People can experience feeling more active, energised, and social during the ovulation period, while some might note feeling more tired or bloated before their period. During menstruation, people can experience cramps or fatigue. But everyone’s period is different and everyone’s experience of their overall cycle is unique.
There are many advantages to tracking your menstrual cycle. It can give you insights into the fluctuations your body goes through—and knowing what’s going on in your body can be very empowering. By tracking these details, you may notice changes that you’d like to check with a doctor. Tracking your cycles can also help you take charge of your fertility.
But the process of tracking menstrual cycles can also be used against you by various groups—even without your knowledge or consent. This is made easier when you use an app that doesn’t take care of your privacy. For example, advertisements can be targeted at you to exploit hormonal fluctuations during your cycle. Depending on where you are in your cycle—ovulation or pre-menstrual—you may be sent ads for certain products with tailored messages. During ovulation you may receive advertisements for lingerie or make-up, while during the pre-menstrual phase you might see products related to parenting and nesting. These ads are based on research conducted by marketing experts and may also reinforce stereotypes about gender.
Watch the video “How your period is making other people rich” on The Guardian’s website to find out more.
To read a case about the United States tracking people’s periods, click the box below or skip ahead to the next section. (Content Warning: sexual violence, pregnancy termination, abuse of power, forced family separation)
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In the United States, government officials at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) have tracked teenage refugees’ cycles to control their reproductive choices (to learn more take a look at the article "The U.S. Is Tracking Migrant Girls' Periods to Stop Them From Getting Abortions"(1) published by Harper’s Bazaar in 2019).
Now that you have an idea about who wants access to intimate information about your body, and how far they could go with it, let’s figure out what options you have—starting with a self-reflection exercise.
What Do You Want?
There are many different options to track your cycle online and offline: downloadable charts and wheels, notebooks, calendar entries, and many different cycle tracking apps. With so many options, which should you use?
Here are a few questions that could help you choose what option may be best for you. Read through these questions, and tick them off once you’ve answered them for yourself:
- How private is the app you are using?
- Depending on your situation and where you live, is safety a concern for you?
- What other individuals or institutions seek access to your cycle data?
- Are you trying to prevent or achieve pregnancy?
- Are you taking hormones and want to track their impact on your cycle?
- Do you prefer a gender-neutral tracking option and what apps allow for that?
- Why do you want to track your cycle and what information do you want to get out of it?
- Are you trying to find out specific things about your cycle and, if so, what?
- What indicators would you like to track? For example, flow, pain and severity, sexual health, mood, exercise, nutrition, sleep, etc.
- When and how are you most likely to enter your tracking information?
Methods to Track Your Cycle
Your tracking data can be shared with many different actors, so figuring out how to track it in a safer way is important. To find out more, take a look at our article on the Data Detox Kit “None of Their Business: How to Choose a Private Cycle Tracking App.”
Let’s go through some tracking options together.
Do you want to track offline?
Do you want to use an online document?
Do you want to use a cycle tracking app?
Tip: Protect documents and apps with a strong password. Find out how to pick a solid password in the Data Detox Kit guide “Let the Right One in”.
In many countries, reproductive choices are severely restricted and abortions or contraceptives are illegal. This means that access to your cycle data can seriously put your safety and those around you at risk. Here are some articles that can help you understand how to navigate the choice of whether or how you can keep your data safe and how to safely access abortions.
- Why deleting your period tracking app isn’t enough (The Conversation)
- How to delete your period tracker and your past tracking data (The Verge)
- How to safely access abortions in the United States (EFF)
- Mozilla’s online guide ‘Privacy not Included’ has a section on Reproductive Health where some period apps are reviewed (Mozilla)
- Wired has ranked the most popular period tracking apps according to privacy (Wired)
In this Data Detox guide you learned how to choose a safe and useful tracking option, so that you are in charge of who knows what about your body. Here’s a quick summary:
Cycle-related data can reveal a lot of information about you. Data about reproduction are sensitive. Depending on your situation and where you live, this intimate information could become exploitative or be used against you.
There are many different tracking options available, but most of them are neither private nor secure: apps share data and other online tracking options that can be accessed by governments and companies.
When choosing an option for yourself, think about what makes a tracking option safe:
- Your data is stored safely and securely. This means your information should be encrypted, stored locally and password protected. The data should not be shareable with third parties or law enforcement.
- It’s easy and quick to delete your information.
- No unnecessary data is tracked without your knowledge.
Finding the best tracking option is your individual choice, but remember that data collection is something that affects everyone with a period, so you’re not alone in navigating this. You can help others become aware about who is trying to know their bodies, too—next time you talk about menstruation with your friends, tell them about what you’ve learned!
For tips on choosing an alternative app for cycle tracking, check out the article “None of Their Business: How to Choose a Private Cycle Tracking App.”
Written by Stefanie Felsberger in October 2022. Thanks to Cassie Cladis, Safa Ghnaim, Christy Lange, and Lieke Ploeger for their comments and reviews.
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