Following the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn the right to abortion protected by Roe vs Wade, many concerns have been raised over online health data security.
Various groups of experts have been urging tech companies to revise their policies to better protect women's privacy. On May 24, lawmakers expressed their concerns in a letter to Google, urging the tech giant "to stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data".
At the same time, privacy advocates are warning users to safeguard their online anonymity with security tools - such as a VPN - together with strong digital hygiene practices.
"Search data matters. Location data matters. Health data matters," tweeted Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
So, how can you keep your online health data protected in a post-Roe America?
The role of tech companies
Every activity that you carry out online leaves some kind of digital trace, from tapping in a query to your browser, to downloading and using an app on your smartphone, and posting holiday pictures on your social media feed.
Tech companies collect a large amount of user data, at all times. These can have a functionality purpose - essential information needed to provide their services - or be sold to third-parties for commercial reasons.
What's more, according to the 2018 US Cloud Act, authorities can request US-based companies like Apple and Google to access this sensitive information for legal purposes.
This is why EFF listed a set of directives that tech companies should enact to safeguard their users' data privacy. These include allowing pseudonymous access, cut down behavioral tracking and enabling end-to-end encryption by default. They also urge companies to implement transparency practices while notifying individual users in case they disclose their sensitive information to third-parties.
How to protect your health data security
Whether or not tech giants will enact a more ethical approach to data collection is yet to be seen. In the meantime, you can protect yourself by minimizing your sensitive health data going online.
1. Use an anonymous search engine
As we mentioned before, the queries that you conduct on your browser or search engine can be easily tracked down. This is why you should use a software that minimizes the collection and retention of data by default. One of the best around is DuckDuckGo, for example. Even some VPN providers offer alternatives nowadays. Surfshark, for instance, now includes a private search engine with its Surfshark One bundle.
2. Protect your sensitive communications
To minimize the risks that sensitive communications might be used against you, you should always use encrypted messaging apps like Signal and secure email services like ProtonMail. EFF's experts even suggest using a secondary phone number for boosting anonymity during phone calls. You can easily create one with Google Voice.
3. Ditch your hungry-data period app
Even though it looks like a hassle tracking down your period on paper calendars and notebooks, using a period-tracking app means that a lot of details about you and your menstrual cycle will be exposed. If you want to use one anyway, avoid those collecting an extensive array of sensitive data. Below, the list of the most data-hungry period-tracking apps on the Apple Store according to research from Surfshark.
4. Minimize your phone location tracking
Your smartphone can say a lot about you, from the apps you download to the places you visit. In particular, geo-localization might be used as a way to determine whether or not you visit an abortion clinic. To reduce the risk you should make sure to disable the location tracking feature from your phone's settings and apps. You can even consider turning off your device completely when you're going to a location with increased surveillance.
5. Add privacy-focused browser extension
As mentioned before, tech companies collect data in several ways and for different purposes. For this reason, you should opt for adding privacy-focused extensions to your browser. These can vary from an ad-blocker to a password manager tool. NordVPN, for example, is offering its Threat Protection for free alongside its VPN subscription. While, our favorite service ExpressVPN comes with its own ExpressVPN Keys at no adding costs.
6. Use a secure VPN
vShort for virtual private network, the best VPNs allow you to safely browse anonymously as they mask your real IP address. Beside bypassing geo-restrictions, it makes it impossible to define your real location. What's more, it encrypts all of your data in transit inside its VPN tunnel so that neither hackers nor authorities can get hold of your information.
Make sure to choose one of the most private VPN services to have the guarantee of a strict no logs-policy. This means that none of your sensitive data can be stored, shared or leaked.
Are free VPNs enough to keep you secure?
As a rule of thumb, you should avoid most free VPN services as they usually make a profit by invasive advertising practices or selling your browsing data to third-parties - exactly what you are trying to avoid if you are worried about your health data security.
The good news is that all the most premium providers all come with a risk-free money-back guarantee starting period, while others even offer a free trial for their mobile version.