‘Assume your data is wanted by police’, digital rights campaigners warn after US abortion decision

Review privacy settings, turn off location services and use encrypted messaging services, campaigners recommend

Adam Smith
Monday 27 June 2022 13:18 BST

Digital rights advocates and abortion campaigners have warned women to take action to protect their privacy online following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade.

Roe v Wade guaranteed the 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.

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.

Compared to pre-Roe America, the tools that women use to manage their reproductive cycles have become digitized and potentially more intrusive.

“Those seeking, offering, or facilitating abortion access must now assume that any data they provide online or offline could be sought by law enforcement.”, Cindy Cohn and Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation write. This could be through apps, search engine requests, posts on social media.

“People should carefully review privacy settings on the services they use, turn off location services on apps that don’t need them, and use encrypted messaging services. Companies should protect users by allowing anonymous access, stopping behavioral tracking, strengthening data deletion policies, encrypting data in transit, enabling end-to-end message encryption by default, preventing location tracking, and ensuring that users get notice when their data is being sought.”

Last month, Motherboard reported on one data firm that was selling information – including location data and visit length – about people’s visits to Planned Parenthood.

“It’s bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data selling marketplace, told Motherboard. “This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions—how you dox clinics providing this service.”

Moreover, an investigation by 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.

It is unclear yet how technology companies will react to warrants from police for abortion information. “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.

Advocates have recommended using products that focus on privacy – like DuckDuckGo for browsing, and Signal for messaging – to protect intimate conversations through end-to-end encryption.

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