FemTech: Taking the World by Storm or Surveilling Your Data?
Vasudha Mohanka

Vasudha Mohanka

Jan 07Feminism

FemTech: Taking the World by Storm or Surveilling Your Data?

Digital and mobile technologies have transformed the way information is accessed, used and shared. Interestingly, while such technologies have made it possible to know, understand, diagnose and prepare for numerous conditions, they simultaneously maintain and surveil data on the digital footprint- the electronic breadcrumbs of active and passive internet and app users.

Danish internet entrepreneur and author Ida Tin, credited with coining the term Femtech, was also the founder of the first ever period tracking app, Clue, recognising that menstruation was going through a concurrent technological and cultural revolution. Tin discerned that female health for long has been underfunded, underserved and under researched, and believed that her term Femtech will simplify the way women talk about their bodies, “giving our bodies a voice even to ourselves, and then from there, we can add that voice into the world.” Tin asserted the importance of access to scientific information on sexual health hence, emphasising on the power of data.

What is Femtech?

It is difficult to say if the term femtech is truly feminist! However, an engagement with it reveals an attempt by start ups, innovators, tech companies and social media giants with a keen interest to deliver digital and technological solutions to women

Femtech refers to “a subset of apps and gadgets geared at enhancing women’s well-being” that brings technologies to women in multitudinous ways. Fem tech includes but is not limited to providing fertility solutions, tracking menstrual cycles, providing pregnancy care, aimed at improving women’s sexual wellness, and providing reproductive health care.

Being cognisant of differences in biology, yet aimed at personalised health care solutions, market analysts Frost and Sullivan foresee femtech to generate a market revenue of around $1.1 billion by 2024. Their study and analysis reveals that femtech has immense growth potential in – health solutions offering affordable pregnancy care, low-income countries with high female populations such as Asia and Africa, targeting the European market through innovative solutions from start-ups, delivering culturally appropriate solutions for instance, wearable devices and reaching women through digital technologies in previously hard to reach rural areas.

Coined by China’s Education Ministry in 2007, “she-economy” refers to a growing number of women across sectors contributing to the growth of the economy especially in healthcare, financial services, e-commerce and education. While the term was coined to reflect the growing number of women in China with higher incomes and greater independence, seeking better services, Frost and Sullivan view women as “movers and shakers” in the healthcare market playing a pivotal role in healthcare as consumers, decision makers, healthcare professionals & caregivers.

From tracking menstruation to nearing menopause

Femtech includes myriad technologies, digital solutions and products to make health care and education reach women.

With offices in USA, India and Malaysia, and recognised by the WHO in 2018 for Innovative Health Technology, UE LifeSciences works at improving global clinical outcomes, providing early detection of cancer to women across the globe, for instance through their radiation free breast imaging technology.

Apps like Nabta Health through their model of “Hybrid Healthcare” aim at fitness and good health, tracking menstrual cycles, monitoring pregnancies (while suggesting “pregnancy workouts”) and preparing for menopause through tracking symptoms and offering advice. Kasha is an e-commerce website for women’s health in East Africa that aims to increase access to contraception to decrease infant and maternal mortality, and HIV, enable access to menstrual care for girls going to school, and economically empower low income women.

Revolutionary prenatal technology WinSenga, developed by students from Uganda’s Kampala Makerere University, scans a pregnant woman’s womb and can detect problems in the fetus, deploying the use of Pinard horn, a technology used by midwives in the past.

South Africa’s Health Department’s freeo-user, available in 11 languages, MomConnect supports maternal and child health through mobile technologies aimed to reduce maternal and infant mortality, encourage behaviour modification through breastfeeding and link to health services.

The greatest challenge in providing quality health care through various technologies includes the voices of women, particularly marginalised women. Devex’s Prescription for Progress conference in February this year brought out possibilities to empower women, placing them at the centre of shaping health care and accessing care services, overcoming shortcomings in the system.

Is my data being mined, shared and surveilled?

UK based charity Privacy International’s analysis of menstrual apps revealed 61% of the 36 apps they tested, how menstrual apps are not just self-care period tracking tools but promote digital monitoring through Datasucker’s logic! The apps track minute and very intimate details ranging from everything related to sleep patterns, smoking, consuming alcohol, your moods and stresses, acne burst outs, the most fertile days of the month, sexual life and orgasms, and even the colour and odour of vaginal discharge!

Privacy International’s study revealed how menstrual apps quickly transfer sensitive personal data and information to Facebook the moment the app is opened by a user and routinely share additional information over time. Information is shared through the Facebook Software Development Kit (SDK) while developers can monetise apps through Facebook Audience Network. It is noteworthy that “the data you share with your menstruation app is probably information you would not share with others”. When Privacy International called out some of the most popular menstrual apps like Clue and Period TrackerFlo for sharing data with Facebook, some of them changed their practices.

However, many apps like Maya (earlier called Lovecycles) created in India by PlackalTech also shared data with Facebook and shared that while they removed the Facebook core SDK and Analytics SDK, after Privacy International shared its findings, Maya acknowledged that they earned revenues from the Ad SDK “by displaying ads that our users can opt out of by subscribing to Maya’s premium subscription.” A while later, their blogpost Sheroes denied that Maya sold any data to a third party. While Maya’s privacy policy states that user data will not be disclosed, it does state that user data may be used “to comply with our advertisers’ wishes by displaying their advertisement to that target audience”. Maya does seem to shae data about moods, contraception use, unprotected sex and health data.

Is femtech feminist?

Femtech goes beyond reproduction, strives to impart health education, awareness, diagnosis and tracking of health while also sharing information with profit making social media and corporate giants like Facebook and Google!

However, data and information is often also shared with universities for large collaborative research studies on for instance, psychological changes around ovulation, identifying groups based on phenotypical differences, pain patterns, PMS and the like, such as those by Clue. It is hard to imagine that funding for such research is often if not always, also funded by large corporations!

Closer home, in India, reproductive health care surveillance that is primarily data driven has cost people their privacy with the proposition to mandatorily link the Aadhar database to the Mother Child Tracking System aiming to discourage sex determination, thereby violating a woman’s agency and privacy to her body.

Argentinian company Tulipan’s “Consent Pack” of condoms requires four hands to open the pack, emphasising on consent. Yet, the ad was seen to be ableist, protecting sexual assaulters, assuming that only two people have sex, that wearing a condom does not mean consent to all sexual activity and that it reduces the engagement with consent during sex!

Digital privacy is a feminist issue especially with the rise in reproductive and menstrual surveillance, wherein women’s personal data is exploited in dystopian ways.

Disclaimer : This information is provided for educational purposes and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare practitioners before undertaking any changes in your diet or adding supplements.

ProactiveForHer is a digital clinic for women, offering accessible, personalized, and confidential health-care solutions. We offer products and services for out-patient health concerns of Indian women, across their lifetime - from puberty to pregnancy to menopause. To know more on the sexual and reproductive health of women, visit https://www.proactiveforher.com/