It turned out that his daughter was already pregnant, and Target realized it before he did.
Since then, companies’ data mining has only gotten better, but thankfully, so have our privacy protection tools. A leaked draft decision reported by Politico suggests the US Supreme Court is in favor of overturning the landmark 1974 Roe v. Wade decision that gave women the right to have an abortion. This will make online privacy even more important than ever for women and health care providers, as secrecy around abortion becomes essential, not only for personal reasons, but also to avoid potential legal repercussions or backlash alert persons
It is unclear who will be legally responsible for abortion in the nearly dozen or more US states that would like to ban it. (2) But many women will want to hide their online activity as a precaution. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden warned Tuesday that “every digital record — from web searches to phone records and app data — will be weaponized in Republican states as a way to control women’s bodies.”
One of the first things many women do when they discover they need an abortion is to turn to the Internet for advice. This will not change regardless of what the Court decides. But if they live in one of the 22 states that would likely ban abortion in the absence of Roe v. Wade, they would be wise to hide their browsing history and use encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal to communicate with others about your plans. If abortion pills are also outlawed, women may turn to the dark web to purchase them — which they already do, according to this University of Texas study.
Women can also turn to VPNs to prevent mobile network providers and search engines from seeing their browsing habits. They’ll clear their web browsing history, use incognito windows, or download privacy-focused browsers like Firefox.
Such tools, usually associated with political dissidents in autocratic regimes, may become much more important to American women in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Tech news site Motherboard reported Monday that a location data firm is already selling information related to people’s visits to abortion clinics, including where visitors came from and how long they stayed, by tracking apps on groups of phones.
The Internet poses risks, but also helps, such as telemedicine services that offer abortion drugs. Many women in the US have turned to services such as Aid Access to obtain such medications; the Women on Web website offers services to women around the world. Depending on the location, the pills can cost about $90 versus $600 or more to get the procedure done at a clinic, which is prohibitively expensive for many women who need abortions (most of whom live at or below the poverty line).
Online collectives, such as “Aunt Networks” on Facebook, will also become increasingly important. These are pages run by people who offer free room in US states where abortion is legal for women who need the procedure. A 2019 report in the Washington Post described how some Auntie Network pages offered to take selfies at local landmarks as “proof” that the trip was just a vacation. One host in Iowa said they would be “happy to send you a birthday card” containing birth control pills, Plan B pills or a pregnancy test.
Despite the good intentions of these initiatives, this is sensitive information being hosted by a social media company that is already being used by third parties, in this case advertisers.
Meanwhile, an upcoming law in the European Union that limits the power of big tech companies could have the unintended consequence of making people’s data in the U.S. more vulnerable to surveillance.
The EU’s Digital Markets Act, which will come into effect in the next few years, forces the world’s biggest digital companies to make their products compatible with those of competitors. This means that messaging apps like WhatsApp will have to coexist with less secure services like SMS. But some cryptography experts say making these tools compatible would violate their encryption standards, which could put women seeking abortions at greater risk.
Social media and search platforms have been used by the surveillance advertising industry for years. How much will they resist future government efforts to enforce the abortion ban? What happens if state prosecutors order Facebook or Google to identify women who violate the rules?
Given the libertarian spirit of many Silicon Valley billionaire founders and the legal fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden, it’s hard to see such firms bowing to government demands to crack their encryption and provide such details. But enough financial pressure on business can happen.
At this point, encryption and online privacy tools are a sacrosanct right for women seeking abortions. They should not turn into luxury.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• No abortion means poor countries will get poorer: Allison Schrager
• Abortion leaks show Supreme Court is broken: Noah Feldman
• What would life be without Ro vs. Wade?: Jessica Carl
(1) In Oklahoma, health care providers face up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000 for performing the procedure.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She has previously written for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of We Are Anonymous.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion