82% percent of 1,000 FemTech users surveyed in the UK were unclear about how reproductive apps and other FemTech wearables used their data

Targeted advertising also reinforce false stereotypes associated with childbearing

(LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM | WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2023) The UK’s Billion-pound online advertising industry is thwarting women’s reproductive rights, according to a new study by Mozilla’s Senior Tech Policy Fellow Lucy Purdon.

Purdon’s research presents a gendered analysis of how women’s reproductive “milestones” — menstruation, conception, and menopause — are capitalized on for microtargeting purposes.

She argues that this data powers lucrative digital ad businesses that incentivize opaqueness while enforcing false stereotypes associated with childbearing. For example, pairing certain women’s age with a desire to bear children — which in many cases is not the reality — or the assumption that many women are able to carry pregnancies to term, further reinforces shame and stigma surrounding miscarriage and other complications. These stereotypes are detrimental to women's rights and well-being, Purdon notes.

The research titled, “Unfinished Business: Incorporating a Gender Perspective into Digital Advertising Reform in the UK and EU,” unpacks how the erosion of privacy has infiltrated FemTech apps used to track menstruation, pregnancy and manage menopause symptoms. The research also examines the regulatory landscape in the UK and proposes recommendations.

The online advertising ecosystem denies women full sovereignty over their health data and by design, puts women in a perpetual state of vulnerability over their safety.

Lucy Purdon, Senior Mozilla Fellow

Says Lucy Purdon, “The online advertising ecosystem denies women full sovereignty over their health data and by design, puts women in a perpetual state of vulnerability over their safety. There’s a reckoning over the importance of FemTech in closing the divide on access to health information but this should not come with a risk of unwarranted surveillance. My research advocates for a stronger gender perspective in digital advertising reforms and regulating privacy . We need to put a stop to exploitative business models which continue to monetise women’s health data and demand action from policymakers and industry to develop innovative digital advertising alternatives”

For the study, 1,000 women and FemTech users across the UK were surveyed revealing that 82% percent were unclear about how reproductive apps were safeguarding users' data, while over 60% showed great distrust over these apps' ability to safeguard their privacy. About 44% of respondents had deleted an app due to privacy concerns and at least 20% of those respondents had deleted a menstruation or fertility app.

The research is also supplemented by qualitative interviews of over 40 FemTech industry practitioners (investors & marketers) in the U.S., UK, and across the EU, and three rounds of group discussions and interviews featuring a total of 13 Femtech founders, investors, and marketing/advertising experts who spoke to the researcher under Chatham House rules.

Last year, Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included guide reviewed 25 most popular reproductive health apps and wearables such as Flo, Glow, and My Calendar Period Tracker, and found that the majority of these apps featured obscure privacy policies and had no clear guidelines on data sharing policies with law enforcement. A concerning reality that continues to put women seeking abortion services at risk of imprisonment, harassment, and constant surveillance after the rolling back of the Roe vs. Wade law in multiple states across the U.S.

Key Research Findings:

  • FemTech needs to earn public trust. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade, which ended the federal protection for abortion in the U.S., was a lightbulb moment for many of the real-life implications of intimate data collection on a woman’s safety and the surveillance. The majority of the FemTech practitioners and advertisers who participated in the roundtable discussions agreed that the industry is facing distrust over privacy and safety concerns, citing the ad business model.

  • Time to revamp online advertising to serve women better. Purdon’s online survey of 48 FemTech industry players across the UK, EU and U.S found that over 70% had used some form of online advertising to generate their revenue. And at least 50% said they used ad tech tools for retargeting such as Meta pixel or software development kits (SDKs) which collect lots of personal data. A 2023 investigation by The Guardian in the UK revealed the NHS, the Metropolitan Police and several mental health charities were sharing sensitive data in this way. As of yet there has been no regulatory action, unlike in the US where Femtech companies Flo and Premom faced action for sharing sensitive data with marketing and analytics firms in this way.

  • Data brokers are getting craftier, and more undetectable. An investigation by the Markup revealed how millions of European users had been segmented into 650,000 categories, on Microsoft’s ad platform, Xandr, ranging from heavy purchasers of pregnancy tests”, “likely symptoms of menstrual cramps”, “infertility/IVF”, “user pregnancy/ovulation apps”, to “dealing with stress- emotional”. This granular micro-targeting bombards vulnerable users with emotionally draining adverts. Purdon says email is now the new cookie as it is required for the majority of account creations, and sign-ups and is used as identifiers to build user profiles.

  • Tighten data and targeted advertising policies in the US, UK, and EU. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU has been significant in reducing the number of data breaches, but Ad Tech and ad brokers are getting more complex at evading detection. The research recommends widening regulatory policies to include investigations into the role of pixels and SDKs particularly in the UK. The research calls for data containing medical records to be categorized as “medical” in app stores, and not “Health and Fitness”, conducting more gender-focused research in data and privacy, and having an open register of data brokers and ad tech companies to make non-compliance easier to catch. Also, incentivizing alternate models to online advertising and considering banning the sharing of sensitive personal data for advertising purposes, analytics, and attribution.

Press contacts:

Tracy Kariuki, [email protected]

Kevin Zawacki, [email protected]