Before you start using the next amazing new femtech innovation, you may want to weigh the benefits against your right to privacy.

You might want to think twice before accepting that sweet employer incentive for participating in health monitoring. Yes. Corporate wellness monitoring programs offer benefits, but they also have drawbacks. 

There’s a growing trend of technology designed to serve women’s health needs. The emergence of femtech is yet another way that companies learn more about your personal habits, and the more that they know about you, the more that they can profit.

The Real Benefactors of Menstrual Surveillance

Menstrual surveillance” – as it’s called by many women’s privacy advocates – benefits men, marketers and pharmaceutical companies more than its users. Between 2015 and 2018, investors have poured over $1 billion into the rapidly burgeoning industry.Analysts forecast that menstrual surveillance, which is known more commonly as the femtech industry, will generate $50 billion by 2025. Currently, however, only 10% of all femtech investment funds go to women-led enterprises.

Overall, women don’t design most products and applications that dominate the expanding femtech industry. Mostly men and marketers create femtech and peddle it under the pretense of voluntary surveillance.

The outcome of a male-dominated industry that serves a woman’s market is painfully apparent; The most beneficial features for women are the most underdeveloped.

Technically, femtech apps have existed since the introduction of app markets. However, no one took notice of the vertical until the Glow app raised $23 million in venture capital in 2013. Now, femtech is the next mainstream speculative rage among investors and venture capitalists.

To Share, or Not to Share – Your Data That Is

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compels healthcare organizations to maintain a high standard for patient information privacy and security. Nevertheless, healthcare providers still manage to deliver a satisfying and personalized experience to patients via web portal.

Other companies, however, aren’t required to comply with HIPAA standards. For example, more than 12 million consumers have submitted samples to for-profit companies for DNA testing. Companies such as Ancestry and MyHeritage have made millions of dollars in the consumer DNA testing vertical.

However, many consumers may not know that such enterprises are not explicitly required by lawmakers to protect consumer information. According to HIPAA, all the company need do to trade consumer information freely is to remove customers’ names.

86% of respondents in the recent survey expressed that they should know when a third-party collects their personal health data. Nevertheless, businesses, pharmacies, insurers and medical labs herd patient information through external – and unaccountable – intermediaries. This information may include a wealth of sensitive data, including:

  • Blood test results
  • Gender information
  • Hospital visit information
  • Partial ZIP Code information
  • Patient ages
  • Physician names
  • Prescription information

In the hands of the right data scientists, someone could easily use this information to re-identify patients in “anonymous” records.

Cashing in On Women’s Health

Today’s femtech apps are indeed popular among women in search of ways to better manage their health. Despite this popularity, none of the current crop of femtech apps can meet the reliability or privacy standards required by HIPAA regulations.

Still, many women choose to use femtech because it “feels” like companies keep their information private. Regardless of this sentiment, most modern consumers understand that this is most likely not true. Nevertheless, 100 million women around the world use one of several femtech products to track highly sensitive information that eventually serves as a gold mine for businesses.

For example, a Privacy International study found that the Maya app developed by Sheroes (a women’s only social network) along with the MIA Fem app shared sensitive information with third-parties such as Facebook. According to the report, Maya shared delicate information, such as when women had sex and whether they used protection.

Privacy International’s analysis of Maya and MIA user traffic revealed that the programs informed Facebook when women used the app. What’s even more unsettling is that this stealthy exchange of information started even before users agreed to the privacy policy. 

Balancing the Scale of Women’s Privacy Rights

Legislators in California are addressing the data privacy issue. By passing the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act, lawmakers intend to give consumers more control over their personal information. 

The legislation mandates that businesses must tell consumers what information they’ve collected, what they’re going to do with their data and who’s going to have access to that information.

HIPAA protects patient medical records. The new California law, however, will give consumers an extra layer of protection for their sensitive information.

Putting Things in Perspective

In the workplace, it’s duplicitous for employers to present health tracking opportunities as voluntary. Often, employers and insurers promote voluntary wellness tracking programs with strong incentives as well as compelling and persistent promotions.

It’s also misleading for employers to tell employees that their information is 100% safe when wellness tracking apps collect so much information that data scientists can use it to reconstruct users’ identities.

Corporate America has a well-documented history of discriminating against women because they are pregnant. Combined with the emerging trends of employers powerfully compelling workers to participate in health monitoring, femtech is a frightening prospect for female professionals.

Instead of giving women more control over their bodies, the femtech industry could take control away from women in the workplace. By volunteering for wellness monitoring, women could make themselves a target for workplace discrimination.

In an age where data is worth more than gold, you must consider if the benefits of adopting a new technology are worth the trade-offs. Today, even companies that aren’t in the information business sell consumer data – if they can get away with it.

Only time will tell how the world’s businesses and employers will make use of the massive amount of information generated by the femtech boom. Until then, it may serve your best interest to let the early adopters take the risk of sharing their sensitive health information with aggressive, profit-seeking companies that aren’t required to conform to HIPAA regulations.

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