In 2019, The Washington Post  wrote an unflattering article on the pregnancy-tracking app Ovia Health. Offered as a corporate wellness tool, Ovia encourages female employees to divulge intimate details of their menstrual cycle, fertility, and pregnancy while employers monitor aggregate data at all stages of family planning. The company says their product can minimize healthcare spending and help employers best plan for maternity leave, but what are the consequences of sharing such intimate data with an employer?
I agree that the data this new technology takes from female employees is alarming. While it claims to empower and care for women’s health, the technology brings intimate information into a relationship with a large power differential and historic discrimination.
Employers first began collecting “corporate wellness” data on employees to save money on health insurance through physical activity trackers like Fitbit. People complained about privacy at first, but then got used to it. Does privacy still matter, and is Ovia different from Fitbit?
Yes and yes.
First, privacy matters because of the huge power differential between an employee and an employer. Ovia is different from Fitbit because it gathers incredibly intimate information. The intimate nature of this information is what makes it extremely difficult to get, and very valuable. In any other context, it is unacceptable for someone to have power over another’s intimacy, and someone that does exert influence over an individual’s intimacy borders on harassment. Combining this large power differential and intimate information is especially disturbing.
Propagating historic discrimination
It’s well known that women are paid a fraction of what men are in the workplace. There has also been a long history of employer discrimination against women for pregnancy. Considering how these health matters have been used against women in the past, should this information, aggregate or otherwise, be directly available to an employer? Health care claims related to pregnancy, miscarriage, or abortion are processed via a third-party vendor to protect privacy, but aggregate data from a pregnancy app is available directly to HR personnel. There is no clinical or medical reason for HR personnel to access these data. Yet making it available to them could unintentionally be used to discriminate against female employees. What if the company is losing too much money on high-risk pregnancies? Will women over 35 (at higher risk) be considered riskier hires? Black women have much higher infant and maternal mortality rates. Will they, too, be less appealing to the HR department?
Moreover, Ovia is an opportunity to surveille more intimately – but only for half the population. Leveraging the anxiety a woman has about becoming pregnant, this app extracts incredibly intimate and valuable data from women, and women only. This does not mean we should even the playing field by collecting intimate data on men. I’m sure employers would love to know about male fertility factors including drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, depression, stress levels, and erectile dysfunction. But this intimate information should be protected from your employer no matter your gender.
We need to sound the alarm on “FemTech” that exploits such intimate information for purposes other than health.