Amid growing concerns about how data might be used to prosecute women looking for abortion care following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a new report from Mozilla shows just how many ways pregnancy and period trackers collect and share advertising-related data and other info that also might be shared with law enforcement.
According to a review of 25 period and pregnancy tracking apps and devices conducted by Mozilla, researchers determined that 18 did not meet expectations for privacy and security standards. Instead, they found a “data buffet” of phone numbers, addresses, device IDs, IP addresses, unique advertising IDs — such as Apple’s IDFA and Android’s Google Advertising ID — along with sensitive info about menstrual cycles, sexual activity, doctor appointments and pregnancy symptoms. The report, released on Wednesday, also described how companies collect and share data for personalizing ads while most apps didn’t offer clear policies about sharing data with law enforcement.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jen Caltrider, lead researcher for Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included initiative. “Literally everything can be used to track somebody seeking reproductive health care now … When abortion was illegal 50-something years ago, the internet didn’t exist. Now, literally, our whole lives online are being tracked and exist in the cloud. Yes, these raise concerns, but so many things raise concerns right now.”
The findings come as part of Mozilla’s “Privacy Not Included” initiative, which aims to help consumers make more data-conscious decisions when choosing various products and services by giving warning labels to apps they might want to think twice about using. For years, the Mozilla Foundation has focused on educating people about privacy issues while also using the topic as a differentiator for its Firefox browser. The new report also provides detailed explainers about each app’s policies and practices while offering tips for how users can better protect themselves by changing a variety of preferences.
As Roe v. Wade was being overturned, Mozilla’s team decided it should also look at period and pregnancy tracking apps, especially in a world where abortion is becoming illegal in some states. The report follows a similar review of mental health apps in May during Mental Health Month, which Caltrider said also revealed “horrible” examples of data collection and sharing.
Although federal law regulates personal health data in the context of health care providers, it doesn’t protect health data in the context of apps; The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was enacted in 1996, just over a decade before the first iPhone was released. However, growing awareness and concern about how sensitive data could be used against women has made passing a federal data privacy law an even higher priority. The topic has also been part of discussions for the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA), which last month reached a major milestone in Congress by moving past the committee stage.
“I think there’s been so much heightened awareness of the privacy risks associated with sharing health data since the Dobbs decision came down,” said Caitlin Fennessy, vp and chief knowledge officer at the International Association of Privacy Professionals. “It did add impetus to the ADPPA and we saw a focus on how it addresses sensitive data and the extent to which that would bring in protections for individuals.”
Some apps have already faced legal and regulatory scrutiny. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission settled a case against Flo Health after the app shared user data with marketing analytics firms including Facebook and Google after promising to keep information private. Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit filed last year alleged Flo secretly collected data about users’ pregnancy attempts that was then shared with third-party companies. (The same lawyers also filed a separate lawsuit against Meta last month alleging the platform showed personalized ads based on existing health issues.)
Most of the apps flagged by Mozilla did not respond to Digiday when asked for a response about the findings. However, a spokesperson for Flo said in an email that the company doesn’t share health data externally and that making revenue from user data “would go against our core promise to our users.” (The spokesperson also noted Flo completed an “external, independent” privacy audit in March and announced a new “Anonymous Mode” in late June that will let users remove identifiers from their profiles.)
“Our Sprout Pregnancy app has always been privacy-focused and is one of the only pregnancy apps on the market that does not require an account to use the app (no username or password),” the Sprout spokesperson wrote. “And the app data is only backed up to the user’s personal iCloud or Google Drive account.”
In the case of Maya, the period tracker claims it won’t share identifiable information but does share “anonymized” information with advertisers. But Mozilla also noted a Privacy International report in 2019 that found Maya was sharing sensitive info with Facebook including mood and sexual activity. Other apps’ ad capabilities seem more limited. For example, with Philips Digital-owned Pregnancy+ app, Mozilla noticed that the app encourages people to choose the “Gold” version for customized features including personalized advertising.
Mozilla isn’t the first organization to review pregnancy and period app privacy policies. Last month, the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA)—an independent organization in the U.K. that reviews health care apps for government agencies—found that 84% of the 25 trackers and 24 app developers it reviewed shared data with third parties. While 68% shared data for marketing purposes such as contact lists, just 40% did so for research or to improve the app.
Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, described Mozilla’s findings as “a perfect example of how pervasive and yet insidious the costs of [losing] privacy can be.” That’s because personal information and the value of data changes depending on the context.
“Losing one’s privacy therefore may mean as little as being served online ads you find intrusive, or as much as losing your reproductive rights,” Acquisti said via email. “In fact, the costs of losing privacy can be so diverse that they are hard to anticipate until they eventually materialize. This makes it difficult for all of us to fully realize the value of privacy ex ante.”
NASA Says Hurricane Didn’t Hurt Artemis I Hardware, Sets New Launch Window
NASA’s Artemis I moon mission launch, stalled by Hurricane Ian, has a new target for takeoff. The launch window for step one of NASA’s bold plan to return humans to the lunar surface now opens Nov. 12 and closes Nov. 27, the space agency said Friday.
The news comes after the pending storm caused NASA to scrub the latest Artemis I Iaunch, which had been scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 2. As Hurricane Ian threatened to travel north across Cuba and into Florida, bringing rain and extreme winds to the launch pad’s vicinity, NASA on Monday rolled its monster Space Launch System rocket, and the Orion spacecraft it’ll propel, back indoors to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
The hurricane made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, bringing with it a catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding that left dozens of people dead, caused widespread power outages and ripped buildings from their foundations. Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday, adding that it will take “months, years, to rebuild.”
Initial inspections Friday to assess potential impacts of the devastating storm to Artemis I flight hardware showed no damage, NASA said. “Facilities are in good shape with only minor water intrusion identified in a few locations,” the agency said in a statement.
Next up, teams will complete post-storm recovery operations, which will include further inspections and retests of the flight termination system before a more specific launch date can be set. The new November launch window, NASA said, will also give Kennedy employees time to address what their families and homes need post-storm.
Artemis I is set to send instruments to lunar orbit to gather vital information for Artemis II, a crewed mission targeted for 2024 that will carry astronauts around the moon and hopefully pave the way for Artemis III in 2025. Astronauts on that high-stakes mission will, if all goes according to plan, put boots on the lunar ground, collect samples and study the water ice that’s been confirmed at the moon’s South Pole.
The hurricane-related Artemis I rollback follows two other launch delays, the first due to an engine problem and the second because of a hydrogen leak.
Hurricane Ian has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone but is still bringing heavy rains and gusty winds to the Mid-Atlantic region and the New England coast.
What You Get in McDonalds’ New Happy-Meal-Inspired Box for Adults
You’ve pulled up to McDonald’s as a full-on adult. You absolutely do not need a toy with your meal, right? Joking. Of course you do.
The fast-food chain will soon sell boxed meals geared toward adults, and each one has a cool, odd-looking figurine inside.
The meal has an odd name — the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box — that’s based on the fashion brand collaborating with McDonald’s on this promotion.
According to McDonald’s, the box is inspired by the memory of enjoying a Happy Meal as a kid. The outside of the box is multicolored and features the chain’s familiar golden arches.
The first day you can get a Cactus Plant Flea Market Box will be Monday, Oct. 3. Pricing is set by individual restaurants and may vary, according to McDonald’s. It’ll be available in the drive-thru, in-restaurant, by delivery or on the McDonald’s app, while supplies last.
You can choose between a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets. It will also come with fries and a drink.
Now about those toys. The boxes will pack in one of four figurines. Three of the four appear to be artsy takes on the classic McDonald’s characters Grimace, Hamburglar and Birdie the Early Bird, while the fourth is a little yellow guy sporting a McDonald’s shirt called Cactus Buddy.
In other McD news, Halloween buckets could be returning to the chain this fall. So leave some room in your stomach for a return trip.
Why companies like iHeartMedia, NBCU rely on homegrown IP to build metaverse engagements
To avoid potential blowback from a skeptical audience, retailers as well as media and entertainment companies are learning to invest in their homegrown intellectual properties while building virtual brand activations inside Roblox or Fortnite.
Take, for instance, when they get it wrong.
Earlier this week, Walmart launched its own Roblox world — called Walmart Land — and was roundly mocked for it across social media given the announcement’s disjointed brand message and apparent lack of life. In one viral tweet, a Twitter user described a clip of Walmart CMO William White introducing the Roblox space as “one of the saddest videos ever created.”
To some extent, this sort of criticism is to be expected during the early days of the metaverse.
“Walmart is an iconic brand; when you see them coming into a platform like Roblox, people are going to be 10 times more critical of what is being launched,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, CEO of the Roblox developer studio Supersocial.
But Walmart’s size is not its only disadvantage as it dips its toes into Roblox. Although Walmart has a widely recognizable brand, it owns few intellectual properties that users are actually interested in experiencing virtually — a shortcoming reflected by the somewhat cavernous emptiness of Roblox’s Walmart Land.
The success of other recent brand activations is evidence that media and entertainment brands are better equipped to build metaverse spaces that can dodge online skepticism, thanks to their wealth of owned IP.
“They are having to reinvent themselves, to a certain degree, but that is in their DNA,” said Jesse Streb, global svp of technology and engineering at the agency DEPT. “So they have a unique advantage over, say, some kludgy company that sells lumber, or a construction company.”
For example, iHeartMedia’s Roblox and Fortnite spaces were inspired by the mass media corporation’s wealth of popular real-life events, such as the Jingle Ball Tour and iHeartRadio Music Festival, with virtual versions of musicians like Charlie Puth performing pre-recorded concerts that allow real-time audience interaction.
“There’s a strong brand association with the IP, down to a station level — you’re in the New York area, you probably know Z100,” said iHeartMedia evp of business development and partnerships Jess Jerrick. “The same is true for the event IP, or the IP that we now have in the podcasting space, and of course our radio broadcast talent. So there’s no shortage of really strong IP we can bring into these spaces.”
Translating real-life properties into the metaverse is also an enticing prospect for brands that view metaverse platforms as an experimental marketing channel, allowing them to bring tried-and-true IP into their virtual activations instead of designing them from the ground level. This was part of the strategy behind the recent Tonight Show activation in Fortnite Creative, which was designed in collaboration between NBCUniversal and Samsung. “We’re looking at it holistically — how do we find fans in new ways, and use IP that fans love in new ways?” said NBCU president of advertising and client partnerships Mark Markshall.
Since opening on Sept. 14, iHeartLand has already enticed over 1.5 million Roblox users to visit. The company aims to retain that attention with a schedule of virtual programming featuring popular musicians and personalities.
“At our core, we are essentially an influencer network; our broadcast talent are some of the most connected, most engaging influencers at work in media today,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of iHeart Digital Audio Group. “That gives us this sort of superpower, to be able to go into new-ish platforms, like Roblox or Fortnite, because we talk to our listeners through those influencers.”
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