When Amy Pittman signed up for the What to Expect app, which promised daily updates about her pregnancy, it asked for two crucial pieces of information: her email address and her baby’s due date. Then the app, a spin-off of the eponymous book on every expecting parent’s bedside table, surprised her by immediately spreading the news that she was pregnant.
When people register with the What to Expect app, Pottery Barn Kids sends an offer for 20% off nursery items, the first of many emails about nursery decorations. Huggies will start sending weekly emails about diapers. The Cord Blood Registry, which encourages collecting stem cells from the umbilical cord as soon as the baby is born, will send a note of congratulations.
Pittman, a hospital worker who lives in Washington, hadn’t told most of her friends that she was pregnant, but word got around quickly on the corporate internet. You may think, “Well, that’s great. She got a bunch of coupons and discounts!” But there is a serious possible downside to this.
“I didn’t actually like the app that much so I stopped using it,” Pittman told me. She unsubscribed from the emails, deleted the app from her phone, and switched to a different one.
A month into her pregnancy, Pittman miscarried, a difficult experience that she wrote about for The New York Times Modern Love column. But last month, in the weeks before what would have been her due date, she received in the mail a box of baby formula from a company called Similac. It came with a congratulatory card that extolled the benefits of formula feeding.
For a woman who’s moved on from a miscarriage, it could be very upsetting to be reminded of what could have been. But after Pittman’s shock wore off, she was able to laugh about it.
“The internet seems to know so much about us, but it missed this,” she told me. “It had no idea. You can have some secrets from the internet.”
Usually, when it comes to data leaks like this, it’s hard to figure out who sold us out. But in this case, the clues were easy to follow.
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That link takes you to a list of 14 different “select partners” to whom the What To Expect app sells information about its pregnant users. New parents, after all, are incredibly valuable customers who are about to start spending a lot of money on predictable things for the next 18 years. Sharing its list of users is an obvious revenue stream for a free app like What to Expect. On the partners list is Similac, the company that sent Pittman a gift for a baby she was not going to have.
The What to Expect app does have a function to “report a loss,” but Pittman deleted the app before she miscarried. If a user does report a miscarriage, it’s unclear if What to Expect passes that information along to its partners. The app’s parent company, Everyday Health, did not respond to multiple media inquiries.
“The way privacy law largely works for consumers in the United States is through what regulators call ‘notice and choice,'” said Samford University law professor Woodrow Hartzog by email. “That means that so long as users were put on notice of an app’s data practices and made the choice to continue using the app in light of that notice, then the app’s data practices are presumptively permissible.”
But Hartzog had some good news. “Things are starting to change. Regulators are increasingly reluctant to let online services bury exceptionally important terms such as the collection of geolocation in the fine print. Instead, notice must be more meaningful and conspicuous.”
Hypothetically, that would mean the What to Expect app would tell users as they provide their email addresses that they’re going to be passed along to 14 other companies, who may well pair it with other information about them, such as their home mailing address.
“People can’t be expected to read these overly-vague policies, particularly at scale,” said Hartzog. “No one has the bandwidth for that.”
Pittman says she’s heard from a lot of people since she wrote about her experience, including women who miscarried decades ago, pre-internet, who had similar unwelcome surprises. The practice of trying to target pregnant women with ads and products is not unique to the modern era, and given that up to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, there are inevitably going to be women that are mis-targeted. If anything, in the internet age, it’s just a little easier to trace how it happens.
As to whether she’ll use a pregnancy app in the future after this experience, she said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. But I definitely won’t use the What to Expect app.”