Tech companies might give search history and location data of women seeking abortions to police

After Roe v Wade was overturned, Facebook, Instagram, and Google may have to comply with police warrants for information on people wanting abortions

Supreme Court Abortion Public Opinion
Supreme Court Abortion Public Opinion

Technology companies may have to hand over data about users pregnancies to law enforcement after the US Supreme court overturned Roe v Wade.

Roe v Wade guaranteed a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, but Justice Samuel Alito and the other members of the court gave states power to legislate abortions at a state level.

Previously, women had total autonomy to terminate a pregnancy during the first trimester, and allowed some state influence over abortions in the second and third trimesters.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” Justice Alito wrote in a draft of an opinion dated 10 February. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives”.

There are at least 13 states with so-called “trigger laws” that have now banned abortion with Roe getting overturned. At least 26 states are likely to ban abortion quickly now that power has returned to states.

As state laws limiting abortion kick in after the ruling, technology trade representatives told Reuters they fear police will obtain warrants for customers’ search history, geolocation and other information indicating plans to terminate a pregnancy. Prosecutors could access the same via a subpoena, too.

The concern reflects how the data collection practices of companies like Alphabet’s Google, Facebook parent Meta Platforms and Amazon have the potential to incriminate abortion-seekers for state laws that many in Silicon Valley oppose.

“It is very likely that there’s going to be requests made to those tech companies for information related to search histories, to websites visited,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation.

Google declined to comment. Representatives for Amazon and Meta did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Technology has long gathered - and at times revealed - sensitive pregnancy-related information about consumers. In 2015, abortion opponents targeted ads saying “Pregnancy Help” and “You Have Choices” to individuals entering reproductive health clinics, using so-called geofencing technology to identify smartphones in the area.

More recently, Mississippi prosecutors charged a mother with second-degree murder after her smartphone showed she had searched for abortion medication in her third trimester, local media reported. Conti-Cook said, “I can’t even imagine the depth of information that my phone has on my life.”

While suspects unwittingly can hand over their phones and volunteer information used to prosecute them, investigators may well turn to tech companies in the absence of strong leads or evidence. In United States v Chatrie, for example, police obtained a warrant for Google location data that led them to Okello Chatrie in an investigation of a 2019 bank robbery.

Amazon, for instance, complied at least partially with 75 per cent of search warrants, subpoenas and other court orders demanding data on US customers, the company disclosed for the three years ending in June 2020. It complied fully with 38 per cent. Amazon has said it must comply with “valid and binding orders,” but its goal is to provide “the minimum” that the law requires.

Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said on Twitter on Friday, “The difference between now and the last time that abortion was illegal in the United States is that we live in an era of unprecedented digital surveillance.”

A collaborative investigation between The Markup and Reveal, analysing nearly 2,500 crisis pregnancy centre websites, found that nearly 300 of them shared visitor information with Facebook. In some cases, this included a person’s name, email address, or phone number.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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