With abortion now or soon to be illegal in more than a dozen states and severely restricted in many more, Big Tech companies that suck up their users’ personal data are facing new calls to limit such tracking. and this monitoring. One of the fears is that law enforcement or vigilantes could use these treasure troves of data against people seeking ways to end unwanted pregnancies.
History has repeatedly demonstrated that whenever people’s personal data is tracked and stored, there is always a risk that it will be misused or abused. With the Supreme Court’s Friday reversal of the Roe v. Wade in 1973 which legalized abortion, collected location data, text messages, search histories, emails and seemingly innocuous period and ovulation tracking apps could be used to prosecute people asking an abortion – or medical care for a miscarriage – as well as those who assist them.
“In the digital age, this decision opens the door to law enforcement and private bounty hunters seeking vast amounts of private data of ordinary Americans,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, President and CEO of director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based organization. non-profit digital rights.
ITS ALREADY PASSED
Until last May, anyone could buy a wealth of weekly customer data from more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites across the country for as little as $160, according to a recent Vice survey. The files included the patients’ approximate addresses – derived from where their mobile phones ‘slept’ at night – income brackets, time spent at the clinic and major places visited before and after.
All of this is possible because federal law — specifically, HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — protects the privacy of medical records at your doctor’s office, but not information that apps third parties or technology companies collect about you. This is also true if an app that collects your data shares it with a third party who could misuse it.
In 2017, a black Mississippi woman named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after seeking medical treatment for a pregnancy loss.
“While she was receiving treatment from medical personnel, she was also immediately treated with suspicion of having committed a crime,” civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her article. from 2020, “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary”. “Fisher’s statements to nurses, medical records and autopsy records of her fetus have been turned over to local police to investigate that she intentionally killed her fetus,” she wrote.
Fisher was charged with second degree murder in 2018; conviction could have resulted in life imprisonment. The murder charge was later dismissed. The evidence against her, however, included her online search history, which included queries on how to induce miscarriage and how to buy abortion pills online.
“Her digital data gave prosecutors a ‘window into (her) soul’ to support their general theory that she did not want the fetus to survive,” Conti-Cook wrote.
Fisher is not alone. In 2019, prosecutors presented the browsing history of a young mother from Ohio during a trial in which she was accused of killing and burying her newborn baby. Defense attorneys for Brooke Skylar Richardson, who was eventually acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, said the baby was stillborn.
But prosecutors argued she killed her daughter, pointing in part to Richardson’s internet search history, which included a query for ‘how to get rid of a baby’. She was later acquitted.
Tech companies have by and large tried to sidestep the issue of abortion when it comes to their female users. They didn’t say how they might cooperate with law enforcement or government agencies trying to prosecute people seeking abortions where it’s illegal — or helping someone to do so.
Last week, four Democratic lawmakers called on federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users into allowing their personal data to be collected and sold to third parties.
“People seeking abortions and other reproductive health care will become particularly vulnerable to privacy breaches, including through the collection and sharing of their location data,” lawmakers said in the letter. “Data brokers are already selling, licensing and sharing location information of people who visit abortion providers to anyone with a credit card.”
Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Governments and law enforcement may ask companies to provide data about their users. Generally, Big Tech policies suggest that companies will comply with requests for abortion-related data unless they consider them too broad. Meta, for example, pointed to its Online Transparency Report, which states that “we only comply with government requests for user information when we believe in good faith that the law requires us to do so.”
Online rights advocates say that’s not enough.
“In this new environment, tech companies must step up and play a critical 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-protecting encryption; limit the collection, sharing and sale of information that could reveal pregnancy status; and refrain from using artificial intelligence tools that could also infer which users are likely to be pregnant.
WHAT ABOUT PERIODIC APPLICATIONS?
After Friday’s Supreme Court decision, some period-tracking apps tried to assure users that their data was safe. But it pays to read the fine print of app privacy policies.
Flo Health, the company behind a widely used period-tracking app, tweeted on Friday that it would soon launch an “anonymous mode” intended to remove personal identities from user accounts and pledged not to sell the personal data of its users.
Clue, which also has a period tracker app, said it keeps users’ health data – particularly related to pregnancies, pregnancy losses or abortion – “private and safe” with the data encryption. It also said it uses auditing software for regulatory compliance and removes user identities before their data is analyzed by the scientific researchers the company works with.
At the same time, the company acknowledged that it employs “carefully selected service providers to process data on our behalf.” For these purposes, he said, “we share as little data as possible in the most secure way possible.” But Clue provided no further details.
CHARGE FOR THE USER
Unless all of your data is securely encrypted, there’s always a chance that someone, somewhere could access it. So abortion rights activists suggest that residents of 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 just leaving your phone at home — when seeking reproductive health care. To be sure, they say, it’s a good idea to read the privacy policies of any health apps you use.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using more privacy-conscious web browsers such as Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo, but also recommends double-checking their privacy settings.
There are also ways to disable advertising IDs on Apple and Android phones that prevent advertisers from tracking 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 own, tracking can be manually disabled.
Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz and Marcy Gordon contributed to this story.