Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, tells me that “you still see underinvestment and underdevelopment of those features that are used most often by women
“When you look at these types of apps, they’re completely about the surveillance of pregnant women,” she said, “making them ever more responsible and vigilant about their bodies for the sake of their fetus.”
The University of Canberra’s Deborah Lupton – a researcher focused on what she terms “quantified sex” – told the Atlantic in 2014 that the way period-tracking and fertility-tracking apps are lumped together shows you everything you need to know about how developers think of women
Patient Privacy Rights founder Deborah Peel told the Washington Post in 2016 that reproductive health data is uniquely valuable to marketers – knowing that someone is preparing to become a parent means knowing that someone is about to enter one of the very few life stages in which they’re likely to get “hooked on new brands.”
The commercialization of pregnancy is not exactly a new concept, but it’s reached a fever pitch in the digital age, when marketing to someone based on the hormones and genetic material swimming in their abdomen is as simple as pulling a few key pieces of easily trackable data.
In some cases, this data is not even in anonymized formats. In 2016, Consumer Reports found security vulnerabilities in Glow so severe that user profiles could be accessed by “someone with no hacking skills at all.” That might sound like an exaggeration, so let me put it to you another way: The way Glow was set up in 2016, all you had to know in order to see a user’s full profile and account information was their email address, which is what led reporter Kelly Weill to dub the app “a jackpot for stalkers.” (Glow quickly fixed the issue and commented, “There is no evidence to suggest that any Glow data has been compromised.”)
Today, the app has 15 million users, and this type of scale is its own pressure: Glow is now the only HIPAA-certified reproductive health app, and its 2016 panic was followed by a third-party security audit. That’s great! Unfortunately, scale is also what allows a tech company of this size – and with this obligation to investors – to open a whole other can of worms. With a wealth of fertility data at its disposal, Glow has expanded into the trendy business of IVF and egg freezing, equipped with a marketing strategy I don’t really think we should even try to get into without some light sedation, but we have no choice.
In a questionnaire on the app’s website, Glow promises to debunk common myths about egg freezing (a procedure that can be invasive and cost tens of thousands of dollars, and which has not been done frequently enough to have reliably citable success rates), insisting that even though your gynecologist will tell you that you don’t need to worry about it in your 20s, you really ought to consider it.
Glow’s approach is even seedier than a swanky informational IVF cocktail party, in that it preys on women who have been logging years of intimate data. You haven’t gotten pregnant yet? Well, we’re not necessarily saying it should concern you, but if anyone would know, wouldn’t it be us?
If the goal of tech-enabled health tracking is to empower users to make informed medical choices, Glow is a great example of how not to do that. It takes its millions of users on a well-designed, user-friendly, fertility-obsessed road that ends in promises that egg freezing is a logical thing to pursue in your mid-20s. CEO and co-founded Mike Huang has also said that Glow data may be used to make “more accurate risk assessments … which will ultimately result in better health insurance,” an interesting comment given that the major North American life insurance company John Hancock announced last month that it will only sell “interactive” policies that track man looking for woman health via smartphones and wearables.
Obviously, those are niche products that aren’t being created by major companies or signing up sizable user bases. But they reflect a mode of thinking that’s common in the category. In 2015, Glow would remind women who were trying to become pregnant and entering a fertile window to wear nice underwear that day, and it would also remind their partners to bring home some flowers.
“It’s good enough” is the refrain Wachter-Boettcher says she hears from women. “It does what I need, but I don’t know why it’s making this assumption or that assumption.”