In the state of Nebraska, a criminal case was filed against a teenager and her mother related to the alleged termination of her daughter’s pregnancy. Prosecutors obtained a warrant for data from Facebook, which included private conversations between them via Facebook Messenger, and later obtained another warrant for their laptops and smartphones. An apparent abortion occurred before the end of Roe, when it would have violated Nebraska’s existing abortion laws after 20 weeks. But the role of digital evidence in the case — including that Meta turned it over — could be a sign of how other states will pursue an expected increase in criminal abortion cases. (Meta spokesman said Andy Stone the warrants did not mention abortion.)
A Google search for a reproductive health clinic, an online order for an abortion pill, a ping about a doctor’s office location, and a message about an abortion can all be sources of evidence. Privacy advocates say people share their fertility data online all the time, even if they don’t realize it. Other obvious sources of health data include period tracking apps and digital hospital registration forms.
“People shouldn’t be held responsible for doing everything flawlessly when they’re in a stressful situation to protect our own privacy,” said India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Privacy is a basic human right and should be protected by law and statute.”
Here are the basic steps anyone can take to protect personal information when considering an abortion.
The biggest risk factor is other people. According to Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director of the nonprofit If/When/How, many cases against people who have had abortions begin with those they say report it to law enforcement.
“The biggest vector of criminalization is the health care system,” Diaz-Tello said. The group studied cases against people who had abortions since 2000 and tracked how the process typically unfolds.
When someone goes to the doctor with an abortion-related medical problem, medical professionals can report it to the police, who can then confiscate their phones or computers. With the device in hand, the police can simply view the web browser and text messages directly.
Diaz-Tello recommends being judicious about what information you provide in the emergency room or doctor’s office. A miscarriage and a self-administered pill abortion will look the same to most health care providers and require the same treatment, she said.
Also limit who you talk to in your life, including friends or family. If you feel threatened by an intimate partner, take these steps to protect your communications and devices.
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Communicate in a secure, encrypted messaging app
If you do discuss your situation, use private messaging apps that use encryption. Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp, and Meta’s Signal have end-to-end encryption by default, meaning messages are hidden from everyone but the sender and recipient.
In the Nebraska case, the messages appeared to be part of an unencrypted Facebook Messenger conversation. There is an option to enable encryption for individual contacts in Messages, but it’s not enabled by default, meaning law enforcement can try to retrieve any unencrypted chats directly from Meta. (If you need to use Messenger, turn on encryption and set disappearing messages. Start sending a message in the app, click the person’s profile picture and select “go to private conversation” and turn on “Disappearing Mode”.)
Remember that someone with access to your physical device can view your messages regardless of whether they are encrypted or not. Don’t hand over your phone or laptop to law enforcement without a warrant, privacy experts advise, and turn off biometric authentication like Face or Touch ID if you’re worried someone might pressure or force you to unlock it. Make sure your phone, tablet, and computer require a passcode or passcode. Avoid wearing any health tracking devices while monitoring your health. If you use an encrypted chat app on your devices, set the messages to disappear after a certain amount of time.
Browse the Internet safely
Eric Rescorla, Firefox’s chief technical officer, said your browser activity can put you at risk in two ways: someone seeing it on your device, and someone getting it from tech or advertising companies.
Always use Incognito or Private Browsing mode on your web browser to leave no trace on your devices. When choosing a browser, choose Safari, Firefox, or Brave, all of which have solid privacy features. Make sure any options to prevent cross-site tracking are enabled, and use a search engine like DuckDuckGo or Brave instead of Google.
To minimize what is recorded about your browsing, use a VPN or Apple’s iCloud Private Relay, which act as more secure VPNs. Avoid using third-party apps to search. If you need an extra layer of protection, use Tor Browser, an anonymous web browsing tool that masks your identity and your location, Rescorla said.
If you’re using Google, make sure you’re signed out of your account and have all your privacy settings turned on. Confirm that any results from abortion clinics are real and not fake “crisis pregnancy” centers. If it’s a Google ad, there should be a small line above the site name that says “Provides abortions” or “Does not provide abortions.” The National Abortion Federation has a list of vetted providers on its website.
Turn off sending location data or leave your phone
Some apps collect data about your location throughout the day and night and share it with third parties, including data brokers, who sell that data to anyone willing to pay. To turn off the transmission of location data on an Apple device, go to Settings → Privacy → Location Services and move the slider to gray. (Note that this will cause location-based apps like Uber or Maps to stop working.) On your Android device, go to Settings → Location and set the switch to off.
Unfortunately, turning off the sending of geodata will not stop your mobile operator from collecting data about your location. Jennifer Granik, a surveillance and cybersecurity adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Faraday bag, which blocks electromagnetic fields, can help in cases where a person wants to keep their phone with them but prevents service providers from tracking their location.
To really hide your location, it’s best to leave your phone at home or turn it off completely, McKinney said. You can also use a temporary “lighter” phone. Don’t add any accounts, connect to your home Wi-Fi, or turn on Bluetooth, she added.
Increase your privacy settings
To ensure that your phone or social networking sites collect as little data as possible, lock down your privacy settings. You can find a list of the biggest apps and device settings in our privacy reset guide.
A guide to every privacy setting you need to change now
Avoid period tracking apps
Trusting any program with sensitive health information is risky, especially if it is not covered by HIPAA. Each period tracking app has different privacy practices, and understanding the nuances can be tricky. A password-protected spreadsheet or paper calendar will work better for you.
If you choose to delete your period tracking app, please also submit a deletion request, said Alan Butler, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Some companies only honor these requests from people in California because of the state’s privacy law, but others accept requests from anywhere.
“The powers of the state and federal government to obtain data right now are incredibly broad,” Butler said. “We haven’t seen new restrictions on data access from the government in decades, which means the laws … have gotten weaker as technology has advanced.”
Restrict access to health information
Your dentist and even your exercise instructor may hand out forms asking if you are pregnant. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, say so and save that conversation for a doctor you trust.
Your doctor’s office registration software may have privacy holes, according to The Washington Post. A consent form from the maker of registration software Phreesia, for example, gives it permission to use your data for marketing. Select “no” on any data sharing request you see.
Push your health care and insurance providers on what they do with your information, such as the date of your last period or pregnancy status. Where is it recorded and stored, is it encrypted and how long is it stored? Review each document you sign to see if you are giving up any rights to your information or giving permission to share it with other parties.
Be aware of physical surveillance technology
In some cases, law enforcement can obtain data from license plate readers or facial recognition software systems that have been strategically placed along state lines, the ACLU’s Granick said. If you need reproductive services, you may want to consider using alternative modes of transportation instead of driving your own car, for example.
“People shouldn’t give up, even though it’s hard and it can seem overwhelming,” Granik said. “People must take advantage of what they can do, while forcing those in power to do more.”