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EXPLAINER: Online privacy in a post-Roe world

The case of a Nebraska woman charged with helping her teenage daughter end her pregnancy after investigators obtained Facebook messages between your two has raised fresh concerns about data privacy in the post-Roe world.

Since prior to the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Big Tech companies that collect personal stats of these users have faced new calls to limit that tracking and surveillance amid fears that police or vigilantes might use those data troves against people seeking abortions or those that make an effort to help them.

Meta, which owns Facebook, said Tuesday it received warrants requesting messages in the Nebraska case from local police on June 7, prior to the Supreme Court decision overriding Roe came down. The warrants, the business added, didn’t mention abortion at all, and court papers at that time showed that police were investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.

However, in early June, mom and daughter were only charged with an individual felony for removing, concealing or abandoning a body, and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of someone else and false reporting.

It wasnt until in regards to a month later, after investigators reviewed the private Facebook messages, that prosecutors added the felony abortion-related charges contrary to the mother.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that whenever peoples personal data is tracked and stored, theres always a risk that maybe it’s misused or abused. With the Supreme Courts overruling of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, collected location data, texts, search histories, emails and seemingly innocuous period and ovulation-tracking apps could possibly be used to prosecute individuals who seek an abortion or health care for a miscarriage in addition to those that assist them.

In the digital age, this decision opens the entranceway to police and private bounty hunters seeking vast levels of private data from ordinary Americans, said Alexandra Reeve Givens, the president and CEO of the guts for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based digital rights nonprofit.


Facebook owner Meta said it received a legal warrant from police concerning the case, which didn’t mention the term abortion. The business has said that officials at the social media marketing giant always scrutinize every government request we receive to ensure it really is legally valid and that Meta fights back against requests that it thinks are invalid or too broad.

However the company gave investigators information in about 88% of the 59,996 cases where the government requested data in the next half of this past year, in accordance with its transparency report. Meta declined to state whether its response could have been different had the warrant mentioned the term abortion.


Until earlier this May, anyone could purchase a weekly trove of data on clients at a lot more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites round the country for less than $160, in accordance with a recently available Vice investigation. The files included approximate patient addresses produced from where their cellphones sleep during the night income brackets, time spent at the clinic, and the very best places people visited before and afterward.

Its all possible because federal law specifically, HIPAA, the 1996 MEDICAL HEALTH INSURANCE Portability and Accountability Act protects the privacy of medical files at your doctors office, however, not any information that third-party apps or tech companies collect about you. This is especially true if an app that collects your computer data shares it with an authorized that may abuse it.

In 2017, a Black woman in Mississippi named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after she sought health care for a pregnancy loss.

While receiving care from medical staff, she was also immediately treated with suspicion of committing a crime, civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her 2020 paper, Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary. Fishers statements to nurses, the medical records, and the autopsy records of her fetus were turned to the neighborhood police to research whether she intentionally killed her fetus, she wrote.

Fisher was indicted on a second-degree murder charge in 2018; conviction may have resulted in life in prison. The murder charge was later dismissed. Evidence against her, though included her online search history, including queries on how best to induce a miscarriage and how exactly to buy abortion pills online.

Her digital data gave prosecutors a window into (her) soul to substantiate their general theory that she didn’t want the fetus to survive, Conti-Cook wrote.


Though many companies have announced policies to safeguard their very own employees by spending money on necessary out-of-state happen to be obtain an abortion, technology companies have said little about how exactly they could cooperate with police or government agencies attempting to prosecute people seeking an abortion where it really is illegal or that are helping someone achieve this.

In June, Democratic lawmakers asked federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving an incredible number of cellular phone users by enabling the collection and sale of these personal data to third parties.

The next month, Google announced it’ll automatically purge information regarding users who visit abortion clinics or other locations which could trigger legal problems following a Supreme Court decision.

Governments and police can subpoena companies for data on the users. Generally, Big Tech policies suggest the firms will adhere to abortion-related data requests unless they see them as overly broad. Meta, for example, pointed to its online transparency report, which says we adhere to government requests for user information only where we’ve a good-faith belief that regulations requires us to take action.

Online rights advocates say thats insufficient. In the Nebraska case, for example, neither Meta nor police would have had the opportunity to learn the messages had they been end-to-end encrypted just how messages on Metas WhatsApp service are protected automagically.

Meta must flip the switch and make end-to-end encryption a default in every private messages, including on Facebook and Instagram. Doing this will literally save pregnant peoples lives, said, Caitlin Seeley George, campaigns and managing director at the nonprofit rights group Fight for future years.


Unless all your data is securely encrypted, theres always the opportunity that someone, somewhere can get access to it. So abortion rights activists claim that people in states where abortion is outlawed should limit the creation of such data to begin with.

For example, they urge turning off phone location services or simply leaving your phone in the home when seeking reproductive healthcare. To be safe, they state, its good to learn the privacy policies of any health apps used.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using more privacy-conscious browsers such as for example Brave, Firefox and DuckDuckGo but additionally recommends double-checking their privacy settings.

Additionally, there are methods to switch off ad identifiers on both Apple and Android phones that stop advertisers from having the ability to track you. That is generally advisable regardless. Apple will ask you in order to be tracked every time you download a fresh app. For apps you curently have installed, the tracking could be switched off manually.

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