Many women abuzz after Post highlights how some employers have access to pregnancy tracking app

Many women were abuzz on Wednesday after the Washington Post exposed the fact that some employers have access to all sorts of pregnancy data if their female workers sign up for these apps. 

“Menstrual surveillance,” one woman tweeted out, citing a phrase used in the piece by reporter Drew Harwell, titled, “Tracking your pregnancy on an app may be more public thank you think.” 

“I tried to pull a quote from this that adequately conveyed how creepy this kind of surveillance is but there were too many to choose from,” another woman tweeted. “A must-read for women considering a pregnancy app, especially one that gives their employer access to the data. “

Harwell’s enterprise piece profiled the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia, and how some employers paid to gain access to details of its workers’ personal lives, from their trying-to-conceive months to early motherhood. One woman’s company, the article showed, could look up aggregate data on how many workers using Ovia’s fertility, pregnancy and parenting apps had faced high-risk pregnancies or gave birth prematurely; the top medical questions they had researched; and how soon the new moms planned to return to work.

Ovia is among several pregnancy apps on the market. Some favorites of Reddit users are The Bump, What to Expect and HiMommy, to name some.

But the Post article focused on Ovia Health, which employers can pay to get a special version to relay “de-identified” health data in aggregated for to an internal employer website accessible by HR departments. The companies offer it alongside other health benefits and incentivize workers to input as much about their bodies as they can, saying the data can help the companies minimize health-care spending, discover medical problems and better plan for the months ahead.

The company touts it has helped "over 11 million women and families on their parenthood journeys."

In a statement emailed to KTVU, Ovia spokeswoman Sarah Coppersmith said that the company is “glad this conversation is happening and happy to be highlighted as both a leader in the space and as a company that takes women's health and data privacy very seriously.”

She emphasized that the article highlights “how we only share de-identified, aggregate data with employers, in order to help women and families have healthier outcomes. This is correct. An employer never sees individual, intimate details about any of their employee's lives.”

The article also notes that “we are HIPAA compliant, following the same guidelines that medical professionals need to follow, and these guidelines protect and ensure the data we receive is treated securely,” Coppersmith emailed. “Additionally, the Post noted that we never sell this data. We do not, and never will, sell this data.”

She stressed that “Ovia users have better health outcomes, which is why women -- and employers -- want to use Ovia. It's incredibly dangerous to deliver a baby preterm or undergo a medically unnecessary C-section, as noted in the piece, and we're able to help women find the right resources, learn about their health, and advocate for themselves to have the best outcomes possible.”

Coppersmith wrote that an employer offers "our benefit solution because they want to make sure women and parents feel supported with on-demand family benefits and because the healthcare system is failing women and they want to help their employees have healthier, better outcomes" According to Coppersmith employers who use Ovia have seen a reduction in preterm births and unnecessary C-sections, to name a few outcomes, meaning that female employees are having healthier pregnancies. 

But health and privacy advocates told the Post this new generation of “menstrual surveillance” of “femtech” tools is pushing the limits of what women will share about one of the most sensitive moments of their lives. The apps, they say, are designed largely to benefit not the women but their employers and insurers. And these experts worry that companies could use the data to bump up the cost or scale back the coverage of health-care benefits, or that women’s intimate information could be exposed in data breaches or security risks. 

“What could possibly be the most optimistic, best-faith reason for an employer to know how many high-risk pregnancies their employees have? So they can put more brochures in the break room?” asked Karen Levy, a Cornell University assistant professor who has researched family and workplace monitoring.

The real benefit of self-tracking is always to the company,” Levy told the Post. “People are being asked to do this at a time when they’re incredibly vulnerable and may not have any sense where that data is being passed.”