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Researchers expose security, privacy and safety issues in femtech

Experts are calling on policymakers to acknowledge and accommodate the risks of femtech technologies in the relevant regulations

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Academics are calling for regulatory action after unveiling security, privacy and safety issues in femtech.

Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, Newcastle University, University of London and ETH Zurich, have identified “significant” security, privacy and safety issues surrounding women’s health technologies, such as period tracking apps and fertility smart devices.

These threats, the experts said, included the apps accessing users’ personal contacts, camera, microphone, location and other personal data, as well as system settings and other accounts that expose security and privacy risks.

Femtech apps and devices collect a wide range of data about users, their relatives, their bodies and environments.

The reserach showed that such practices can reveal sensitive and intimate information about users, such as gender, fertility, and medical data, to third parties.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in the Internet of Things and Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security Workshop, analysed several femtech products, including a breast smart pump, cycle and fertility trackers, a smart bottle, Kegel trainers, sex toys, menopause management solutions, a digital pill organiser and general health trackers.

The research team reviewed the existing regulations related to femtech in the UK, EU and Switzerland to identify gaps in regulations, compliance practices of the industry and enforcements by running experiments on a range of femtech smart devices, apps and websites.

Their analysis of femtech-related regulations showed they are inadequate in addressing the risks associated with these technologies.

It found that EU and UK medical devices regulations do not currently have any references to femtech data and user protection.

The GDPR and Swiss FADP have references to sensitive and special category data, which overlap with femtech data, according to the research. However, the industry practices include many non-complaint practices in data collection and sharing.

The study also looked at industry non-compliance. The team identified a range of inappropriate security and privacy practices in a subset of femtech systems. The research showed that these systems do not brand as medical devices, do not present valid consent and do not give extra protection to sensitive data, and track users without consent.

The authors revealed that, not only is such intimate data collected by femtech systems, but also this data is processed and sold to third parties.

The findings have exposed a lack of research and guidelines for developing cyber-secure, privacy-preserving and safe products, they wrote.

Dr Maryam Mehrnezhad, lead author of the research and senior lecturer at Royal Holloway said: “We have identified multiple threat-actors interested in femtech data such as fertility and sex information.

“We have been conducting security and privacy research on this topic since 2019. Apart from our system studies, our user studies also highlight that end-users are indeed concerned about their intimate and sensitive data being handled by femtech products.”

She continued: “We constantly share our research results with the industry and related regulatory bodies, such as the Information Commissioner’s Office.

“We hope to see better collaborative efforts across the stakeholders to enable the citizens to use femtech solutions to improve the quality of their lives without any risk and fear.”

Professor Mike Catt of Newcastle University, one of the study authors, added: “We urge regulatory bodies to update and strengthen guidelines to ensure the development and use of secure, private and safe femtech products.

“Many of the apps surveyed access mobile and device resources too. Some of these permissions are marked as dangerous, according to Google’s protection levels. Such access potentially exposes contacts, camera, microphone, location and other personal data. Some specific permissions, such as access to system settings and other accounts on the device, also impose security and privacy risks.

“Access to sensors on the mobile phone can also be used to break user privacy. Users deserve better protection, especially where this relates to sensitive personal health and gender data.”

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Labcorp launches screening test to identify preeclampsia risk sooner

The new screening tool is capable of assessing the risk of preeclampsia sooner, the test maker says

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Labcorp has launched a screening test that can assess the risk of preeclampsia before 34 weeks of pregnancy.

Preeclampsia is a high blood pressure disorder that can develop during pregnancy or postpartum and is a leading cause of maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide.

Roughly one in 25 pregnancies in the US is affected by preeclampsia, which poses an even greater risk for non-Hispanic black women, who experience the condition at a 60 per cent higher rate compared to white women.

In January, Labcorp announced the launch and availability of an FDA-cleared blood test for risk assessment and clinical management of severe preeclampsia during the second and third trimesters.

The first trimester test uses four early pregnancy biomarkers to provide a risk assessment with up to 90 per cent sensitivity, nearly twice the sensitivity of assessing typical maternal history or biophysical factors alone.

According to Labcorp, the test results provide risk identification earlier than traditional symptoms, such as hypertension or protein in the urine, which tend to develop around 20 weeks gestation.

Eleni Tsigas, chief executive officer of the Preeclampsia Foundation, said: “Our organisation celebrates this innovative new test offering.

“Research shows that patients and providers want access to more tools that better predict progression to preeclampsia, especially for those patients with low- to average-risk or those with first-time pregnancies for whom there is some uncertainty.”

Dr Brian Caveney, chief medical and scientific officer at Labcorp, added: “Labcorp is committed to advancing maternal and foetal health through innovative diagnostic and screening solutions.

“This new first trimester blood test is another significant milestone in our mission to improve health and improve lives. By giving healthcare providers another tool to assess preeclampsia risk in their pregnant patients with objective biomarkers, we’re helping to advance prenatal care and improve outcomes for mothers and their babies.”

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People with HIV can be sperm and egg donors

A change in law will allow people with non-transmissible HIV in the UK to donate gametes to partners

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Same-sex couples with non-transmissible HIV will now be able to donate eggs or sperm and become parents.

People with HIV will able to donate their sperm or eggs to their partners, as the law in the UK is updated.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act will be amended via a statutory instrument to allow people with non-transmissible HIV – with a viral load low enough not to pass on – to donate eggs or sperm, known as gametes, as part of fertility treatment to their partners.

Under current rules on IVF, only a male partner with HIV can give their sperm to their female partner and not to anyone else.

The law change will also eliminate extra screening costs for female same-sex couples undertaking reciprocal IVF treatment.

The government says this is part of wider work to improve access to IVF for everyone and ensure same-sex couples have the same rights as a man and woman when trying to conceive.

“These changes will allow more people to fulfil their dream of becoming parents,” said UK health minister, Maria Caulfield.

“We have changed the law to ensure equality for people living with HIV when accessing IVF, allowing them to donate their eggs and sperm.

“In addition, the change will allow female same-sex couples to access IVF with no extra screening costs, the same as heterosexual couples.”

She added: “These changes will help create a fairer system by removing barriers to accessing fertility care as we have set out in the Women’s Health Strategy.”

The changes to the law will allow people with HIV to donate their gametes to family, friends and known recipients.

The regulations include an updated definition of partner donation to enable female same-sex couples wishing to donate eggs to each other to undergo the same testing requirements as heterosexual couples.

Under current rules, female same-sex couples hoping to conceive via reciprocal IVF must first go through screening for syphilis and genetic screening, such as cystic fibrosis, which can cost over £1,000, while heterosexual couples do not need to undergo this screening.

Julia Chain, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said: “The HFEA welcomes the news that legislation regarding partner donation in relation to reciprocal IVF, and gamete donation from those who have HIV with an undetectable viral load, has now been proposed in Parliament.

“Fertility treatment is helping more people than ever to create their family, and everyone undergoing fertility treatment should be treated fairly.

“For known donation from individuals with undetectable HIV, we anticipate that the first clinics may be able to begin to offer this treatment around 3 months following a change in the law.

“We encourage any patients or donors who may be affected by these changes to visit the HFEA website to find out free and impartial information, including about how to choose a fertility clinic.”

Minister for equalities, Stuart Andrew MP, added: “Treatment for HIV has improved significantly, saving countless lives, but the stigma surrounding it persists – a stigma which often prevents people from getting tested and seeking treatment.

“These changes will help to reduce that stigma, making it clear that people with HIV can live full and happy lives. I am delighted by these changes which will enable more people to experience the joy of becoming parents.”

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Portfolia invests total of US$65m into women’s health companies

The platform has invested in 47 femtech start-ups to date

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Trish Costello, founder and CEO of Portfolia

The US venture investing platform Portfolia has announced it has invested a total of US$65m into women’s health companies and solutions.

Portfolia aims to create, educate and support the largest community of women investors in the world.

The company says it was amongst the first to recognise the “immense” potential of women’s wealth, with women’s health at the forefront.

To date, Portfolia has made investments in 112 companies with 47 of those women’s health companies being femtech and active aging specific.

Some of these include Madison Reed, Maven, Everly Health, Bone Health, Veana, Your Choice, Future Family, Willow, Hey Jane, Lighthouse Pharma, L-Nutra and JoyLux.

The total companies Portfolia has invested in are estimated to serve over 102 million customers in 115 countries worldwide.

These companies have a combined value of over US$17bn, with over US$1bn in revenue and 10,000 employees worldwide.

According to Portfolia, almost 70 per cent of these businesses are led by female CEOs, and 49 per cent are led by BIPOC individuals.

“At Portfolia, we believe in the power of activating our wealth for returns and impact,” said Trish Costello, founder and CEO of Portfolia.

“Today, women in the United States have unprecedented access to wealth – with over US$25tn of wealth in the US and almost 50 per cent of it owned by women.

“This wealth is power – power to create financial change and invest in the companies and businesses that matter to us and meet our needs/desires.”

She added: “Our commitment goes beyond traditional venture capital – we’re pioneering change, saving lives, and creating opportunities for all, while creating the most powerful community of women investors globally, and the first to activate our wealth to shape the future of healthcare.”

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