On Period Tracking & Data Custody
Concern over data from menstruation apps being used to prosecute women who seek abortions highlights the need for increased data custody.
In the wake of the leaked Supreme Court decision about Roe v. Wade, a number of viral posts have encouraged people to stop using menstruation apps, for fear that the data will be used to prosecute people who clandestinely seek abortions. This fear is a valid one. But the problem it underscores is not one of a bad use case but of data custody issues — something we have sacrificed readily over the past twenty years in the name of convenience. The future of software must reverse this trend.
“Custody” in this case refers to your ability to meaningfully control access to data without third-party intervention and limitation. You, as the user, should have the ability to use your data in whichever platforms and environments at will — and be able to keep others out of the parts that are sensitive in the process. The “cloud” trained us to let our data live in what may feel like the fabric of the universe but is actually just someone else’s servers.
That does not mean cloud technology cannot be used in cases where custody is meaningfully maintained. For instance, some apps that heavily focus on the Apple system sync data through the user’s iCloud account. If that data can be deleted by the user at any time and is encrypted, then you still meaningfully control your data — even on a remote server. However, these sorts of methods are still not entirely risk free, even if far more secure than normal use.
The more advanced solution is to rely on one’s own servers, which is more to maintain but something we should increasingly explore for handling sensitive personal data. A “home server” can, in many cases, be as simple as a Mac Mini with a Network Attached Storage (NAS) from which it can serve files. This solution might be extreme for most users but provides the most absolute custody of your files.
Custody should not be seen as synonymous as secure, though — and, in many cases, can make things less secure. The reason why you can reverse a debit card transaction but not one on Ethereum or Bitcoin is a matter of custody. The bank has custody of the assets in the former and you do in the latter. Control over your data gives you the power to keep people out — but also to make mistakes that let others in.
None of this is to say there is a great solution now, merely that we need to start rethinking how we build apps with these considerations in mind sooner rather than later. The app boom driven by the web then mobile was driven so much by expecting the ad revenue and data mining to stay profitable — but consumers are increasingly expecting privacy there too, pushing back with tools like ad blockers. Apple’s recently pro-consumer ad tracking changes tanked Facebook’s ad revenue.
That is to say that clearly tech users are already increasingly thinking about privacy and being aware of the intrusions into it. The demand for these sorts of products clearly exists — people can be lured out of their cozy but panoptic centralized cloud apps toward something better. Ad blockers became popular because they were easy, and there simply need to be similarly easy solutions for these problems too.
Technological progress is never as simple as things improving — there are always drawbacks that become tomorrow’s problems. Fossil fuels solved the need for a cheap way to produce heat and motion, only to now be warming the planet to a detrimental level. We must pave a path forward in software that both corrects for what was eroded and moves things forward in a compelling way. However, that is obviously easier said than done.
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