EXPLAINER: Abortion, technology and surveillance | WGN Radio 720

With abortion now or soon to be illegal in more than a dozen states and severely restricted in many more, big tech companies that hoover their users’ personal data are facing new calls to limit such tracking and surveillance. One of the fears is that such hidden data could be used by law enforcement or vigilantes against people looking for ways to end unwanted pregnancies.

History has repeatedly shown that whenever people’s personal data is tracked and stored, there is always a risk that it could be misused or abused. With the Supreme Court’s Friday overturning of the Roe v. Wade law that legalized abortion, collected location data, text messages, search histories, emails, and seemingly innocuous ovulation and period tracker apps could be used to prosecute people seeking abortion. abortion, or medical care for a miscarriage, as well as those who attend them.

“In the digital age, this decision opens the door for law enforcement and private bounty hunters seeking vast amounts of private data from ordinary Americans,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. , a Washington-based organization. digital rights non-profit.


Until last May, anyone could buy a weekly trove of customer data at more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites across the country for as little as $160, according to recent Vice research. The files included patients’ approximate addresses, derived from where their cell phones “sleep” at night, income levels, time spent at the clinic, and the top places people visited before and after.

It’s all possible because federal law, specifically HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, protects the privacy of medical records in your doctor’s office, but not the information that third-party applications or third-party companies technology collect about you. This is also true if an app that collects your data shares it with a third party that could potentially abuse it.

In 2017, a black woman in Mississippi named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after seeking medical care for a miscarriage.

“While receiving care from medical personnel, she was also immediately treated as suspected of having committed a crime,” civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her 2020 article, “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary”. Fisher’s “statements to nurses, medical records and autopsy records of her fetus were turned over to local law enforcement to investigate whether she intentionally killed her fetus,” she wrote.

Fisher was indicted on one count of second-degree murder in 2018; the conviction could have carried life in prison. The murder charge was later dismissed. However, the evidence against him included his online search history, which included queries on how to induce a miscarriage and how to buy abortion pills online.

“Her digital data gave prosecutors a ‘window into (her) soul’ to corroborate her general theory that she did not want the fetus to survive,” Conti-Cook wrote.

Fisher is not alone. In 2019, prosecutors presented the boating history of a young Ohio mother during a trial in which she was accused of killing and burying her newborn baby. Defense attorneys for Brooke Skylar Richardson, who was ultimately acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, said the baby was stillborn.

But prosecutors argued that he had killed his daughter, pointing in part to Richardson’s Internet search history, which included a query about “how to get rid of a baby.” She was later acquitted.


In general, tech companies have tried to sidestep the abortion issue as it pertains to their users. They have not said how they might cooperate with law enforcement or government agencies that are trying to prosecute people who are seeking an abortion where it is illegal, or who are helping someone do so.

Last week, four Democratic lawmakers called on federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly misleading millions of mobile phone users by allowing the collection and sale of their personal data to third parties.

“People seeking abortions and other reproductive health services will become particularly vulnerable to privacy harms, including through the collection and sharing of location data,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “Data brokers are already selling, licensing, and sharing the location information of people visiting abortion providers with anyone with a credit card.”

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Governments and law enforcement can subpoena companies for data on their users. In general, Big Tech’s policies suggest that companies will comply with abortion-related data requests unless they deem them too broad. Meta, for example, pointed to its online transparency report, which says “we comply with government requests for user information only when we believe in good faith that we are required to do so by law.”

Online rights advocates say that’s not enough.

“In this new environment, technology companies must step up and play a crucial role in protecting women’s digital privacy and access to information online,” said Givens of the Center for Democracy and Technology. For example, they could strengthen and expand the use of privacy protection encryption; limit the collection, sharing, and sale of information that could reveal the status of the pregnancy; and refrain from using artificial intelligence tools that could also infer which users are likely to be pregnant.


After Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, some period-tracking apps tried to reassure users that their data was safe. But it helps to read the fine print of app privacy policies.

Flo Health, the company behind a widely used period-tracking app, tweeted Friday that it would soon launch an “Anonymous Mode” aimed at removing personal identity from user accounts and vowed not to sell the personal data of its users. users.

Clue, which also has a period-tracking app, said it keeps users’ health data, particularly related to pregnancies, miscarriages or abortions, “private and secure” with data encryption. He also said it uses auditing software for regulatory compliance and strips users’ identities before their data is analyzed by scientific researchers the company works with.

At the same time, the company acknowledged that it employs “some carefully selected service providers to process data on our behalf.” For those purposes, he said, “we share as little data as possible in the most secure way possible.” But Clue offered no further details.


Unless all your data is securely encrypted, there’s always a chance that someone, somewhere can access it. So abortion rights activists suggest that people in states where abortion is banned should limit the creation of such data in the first place.

For example, they urge turning off phone location services, or simply leaving your phone at home, when seeking reproductive health care. To be safe, they say, it’s good to read the privacy policies of any health app in use.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using more privacy-conscious web browsers, such as Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo, but also recommends double-checking your privacy settings.

There are also ways to disable ad identifiers on Apple and Android phones that prevent advertisers from being able to track you. This is generally a good idea in any case. Apple will ask you if you want to be tracked every time you download a new app. For apps you already have, tracking can be turned off manually.


Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz and Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.

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