Facebook under fire for sharing private messages that led to abortion charges against mom and teen daughter

Parent company Meta defends accusations as calls increase for using encrypted apps instead

Arpan Rai
Wednesday 10 August 2022 16:50 BST
Facebook says UK-US data sharing agreement will not cost privacy of billions

Facebook has been roundly attacked for sharing private messages with Nebraska police in a criminal abortion case against a mother and her teenage daughter.

Jessica Burgess stands accused of helping her daughter Celeste Burgess, who was 17 at the time, in carrying out an abortion before burning and burying the foetus in Norfolk in April.

The case was built around texts the mother and daughter exchanged via Facebook’s Messenger platform, which were provided to law enforcement by the social media giant.

The messages allegedly showed that Jessica Burgess obtained abortion medication for her daughter and instructed her on how to use them when she was 23 weeks pregnant - beyond Nebraska’s 20-week cut-off.

The mother has pleaded not guilty to all five criminal charges, including three felonies, in the Madison County district court.

Her daughter is now being tried as an adult and has pleaded not guilty on three counts, including a felony. Officials have also charged a 22-year-old man for helping the mother and daughter in burying the foetus.

The case - which comes on the heels of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade - has sparked widespread outrage against Facebook with Messenger users being urged to switch over to more secure, encrypted platforms. The company has insisted it was merely complying with legal warrants.

The Burgess probe began in late April after a detective received a tip that Celeste had miscarried and buried the remains with the help of her mother, according to a search warrant affidavit.

The case by state rests on evidence shared by a Norfolk police investigator who was provided the teenager’s Facebook messenger chats, obtained via court order, raising questions of the social media platform violating the mother and daughter’s privacy.

In court records, the police investigator had sought for the search warrant to be issued for their private chats on Facebook messenger.

“I know from prior training and experience, and conversations with other seasoned criminal investigators, that people involved in criminal activity frequently have conversations regarding their criminal activities through social networking sites i.e. Facebook,” said Ben McBride in his request to the judge, to assess information in the case, “including statements that might indicate whether the baby was stillborn or asphyxiated”.

The investigator also requested for the chats without informing the mother and daughter as the disclosure “may result in the destruction of or tampering with evidence, or have an adverse result or effect on the investigation”.

Facebook’s parent company Meta has defended charges of divulging private information in the case of the alleged abortion, stating that it was served legal warrants.

“Much of the reporting about Meta’s role in a criminal case against a mother and daughter in Nebraska is plain wrong. We want to take the opportunity to set the record straight,” the company said in a statement.

It added that the warrants, received from local law enforcement on 7 June “did not mention abortion at all”.

“Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted,” said the statement issued on Tuesday.

Meta also sought to quell concerns of disclosure of private information at a time when the contentious overturning of Roe vs Wade — in a major setback to the reproductive rights — indicating that abortion will be prosecuted in the US, along with assistance from tech companies.

“We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” Meta’s statement mentioned.

The social media giant has come under fire by several social media users who have pointed to encrypted messaging services that people should use instead.

“Abortion rights supporters have long warned about the destructive power of mass surveillance in the hands of the anti-abortion movement. Now, we’re seeing what that could look like,” wrote international rights organisation Global Justice Center.

“Shame on you Facebook,” wrote author Amy Siskind.

“The difference in abortion being made illegal before Roe and now is today we have a surveillance state. If the tech industry were anything like what they pretend to be - they’d fight this tooth and nail,” wrote video game developer and former candidate for Congress Brianna Wu.

Experts have pointed out that compliance given by tech companies to law enforcement officials should require pressing for better data privacy policies.

“Facebook is gonna comply with search warrants. It’s going to. There are two ways out of the situation: the government can legalize abortion or it can pass privacy laws to stop Facebook from saving and keeping private message data,” said Shane Ferro, digital forensics staff attorney at Legal Aid.

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