This week, a woman in the US state of Nebraska was charged with helping her daughter terminate a pregnancy. The charges came after investigators received Facebook messages in which they discussed using medication to terminate a pregnancy at around 24 weeks.
The prosecutor said this is the first time he has filed charges for illegally terminating a pregnancy after 20 weeks, a limit established by the state of Nebraska in 2010.
In June, the US Supreme Court overturned the decision Roe v. Wade. Before that, American states were not allowed to ban abortions until about 24 weeks. Abortion is any medical operation aimed at terminating a pregnancy.
Meta, which owns Facebook, said Tuesday that Nebraska law enforcement had ordered it to turn over records related to the case on June 7. This was more than two weeks before the Supreme Court decision.
Orders, the company added, “no mention abortions in general”. The orders are said to relate to a police investigation into “a case of a stillborn child who was cremated and buried”.
In early June, the mother and daughter were charged with removing a body, concealing the death of a person and making a false report. After investigators reviewed the private Facebook messages, state lawyers added abortion charges to the mother a month later.
Attorneys for the mother and daughter did not respond to media requests for comment. However, the case has once again raised concerns about data privacy in the United States.
The reaction of the technical industry
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June, tech companies faced increasing calls to protect the personal data they collect from users. Many fear that law enforcement or activists could use the data, including messages, search history and location, against people seeking abortions or those trying to help them.
Until last May, everyone could buy mobile phone records of people at over 600 Planned Parenthood sites nationwide for just $160. A recent investigation by Vice Media found that the information included where the phones “sleep” at night, time spent at the medical center, and places people visited before and after.
In June, Democratic lawmakers asked federal agencies to investigate Apple and Google for allowing their data to be collected and sold to third parties. The following month, Google announced that it would automatically delete information about users who visit abortion centers or places that could cause legal trouble following the Supreme Court ruling.
Privacy advocates say that’s not enough. In the Nebraska case, for example, neither Meta nor law enforcement could have read the messages if they had ciphered how WhatsApp messages from Meta are protected by default.
“The goal should press the switch and make end-to-end encryption standard for all personal messages, including on Facebook and Instagram. Doing this will literally save the lives of pregnant women,” said Caitlin Seeley George. She heads the non-profit human rights group Fight for the Future.
Governments and law enforcement agencies can use court orders to force tech companies to hand over user data. But tech companies say little about cooperating with law enforcement or government agencies trying to prosecute people who want abortions if it’s illegal.
Meta, for example, pointed to his online transparency a report that says “we follow with government requests for user information only if we believe in good faith that the law requires it.”
Users must help themselves
Abortion rights activists suggest that people in states where abortion is illegal should avoid creating such data online. They say people should turn off their phones Location services — or simply leave their phones at home — when seeking reproductive health care. Experts also suggest reading the privacy policies of any health apps you use.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using privacy-friendly web browsers such as Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo. The organization also suggests double-checking your browser’s privacy settings and turning them off tracking on mobile devices.
I’m Dan Novak.
Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on reports from The Associated Press.
The words in this story
prosecutor – n. a public prosecutor who charges a person with a crime
to encrypt – v. change the information to another form to hide its meaning
press the switch – phrase, to suddenly change or do the opposite
transparency – n. the quality of being able to see or understand something
track – v. to keep an eye on something or someone and keep an eye on them
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