The case of a Nebraska woman accused of helping her teenage daughter terminate a pregnancy after investigators obtained Facebook messages between the two has raised new concerns about data privacy in a post-Roe world.
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, big tech companies that collect the personal data of their users faced renewed calls to limit that tracking and surveillance amid fears that law enforcement could use the data against people. who want to have an abortion. or those who try to help them.
Meta, which owns Facebook, said Tuesday that it had obtained warrants for the Nebraska case from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe. The warrants, the company added, “did not mention abortion at all,” and court documents at the time showed police were investigating the “alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn child.”
However, in early June, the mother and daughter were charged with only one felony count of removing, concealing or abandoning a body and two counts of concealing the death of another person and making a false report.
It wasn’t until about a month later, after investigators reviewed the private Facebook messages, that prosecutors added felony abortion charges to the mother.
History has repeatedly shown that when people’s personal data is tracked and stored, there is always a risk that it can be misused or abused. Since the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, collected location data, text messages, search histories, emails, and seemingly innocuous period and ovulation tracking apps could be used for prosecution people who want an abortion — or medical care for a miscarriage — and those who help them.
“In the digital age, this decision opens the door to law enforcement agencies and private bounty hunters seeking to obtain vast amounts of personal data from ordinary Americans,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. a non-profit digital rights organization.
WHY DID FACEBOOK REVERSE THE MESSAGE?
Facebook owner Meta said he received a warrant from law enforcement in the case, which does not mention the word “abortion.” The company said officials at the social media giant “always carefully review every government request we receive to make sure it is legally valid” and that Meta fights requests it believes are invalid or overbroad.
But the company provided information to investigators in about 88 percent of the 59,996 government requests for data in the second half of last year, according to its transparency report. Meta declined to say whether the response would have been different if the word “abortion” had been mentioned in the warrant.
NOT NEW RELEASE
According to a recent Vice investigation, until last May, anyone could purchase a weekly collection of customer data from more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites nationwide for as little as $160. The files included patients’ approximate addresses — derived from where their cell phones “sleep” at night — income categories, time spent at the clinic, and the most popular places people 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 in your doctor’s office, but does not protect any information that third-party apps or technology companies collect about you. . This is also true if the app that collects your data passes it on to a third party who might misuse it.
In 2017, a black Mississippi woman named Lace Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after she sought medical attention for a pregnancy loss.
“After receiving treatment from medical personnel, she was also immediately suspected of a crime,” civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her 2020 article, “Oversight of the Digital Abortion Diary.” “Fisher’s statements to the nurses, medical records and autopsy reports of her fetus were turned over to local police to investigate whether she intentionally killed her fetus,” she wrote.
In 2018, Fisher was charged with second-degree murder; conviction could lead to life in prison. The murder charge was later dropped. However, the evidence against her included her Internet search history, which included inquiries about how to induce a 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.
While many companies have announced policies to protect their own employees by paying for necessary out-of-state travel to obtain abortions, tech companies have said little about how they might cooperate with law enforcement or government agencies trying to prosecute people seeking abortions, where illegally – or who helps someone to do it.
In June, Democratic lawmakers asked federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly defrauding millions of cellphone users by allowing their personal 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 clinics or other places that could trigger legal problems after the Supreme Court ruling.
Governments and law enforcement agencies may require companies to provide data about their users. In general, Big Tech’s policy is that companies will comply with abortion-related data requests unless they deem them overly broad. Meta, for example, pointed to its online transparency report, which says “we comply with government requests for user information only when we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”
Internet advocates say that’s not enough. In the Nebraska case, for example, neither Meta nor law enforcement would have been able to read the messages if they were “end-to-end encrypted,” which is how messages on Meta’s WhatsApp service are protected by default.
“Meta should flip the switch and make end-to-end encryption the default on all private messages, including Facebook and Instagram. It will literally save the lives of pregnant women,” said Caitlin Seeley George, managing director of the non-profit human rights organization Fight for the Future.
If all of your data isn’t 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 illegal limit the creation of such data in the first place.
For example, they urge you to turn off your phone’s location services — or simply leave your phone at home — when seeking reproductive health care. To be safe, 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 turn off advertising IDs on Apple and Android phones that prevent advertisers from tracking you. It’s generally a good idea in any case. Apple will ask you if you want to be tracked every time you download a new app. You can manually turn off tracking for apps you’ve already installed.
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