The Supreme Court on Friday overturned its landmark 1973 ruling protecting abortion.
Privacy advocates warn that phone and computer data can be used as evidence in states where abortion is illegal.
“Privacy shouldn’t be an opt-in model or something that we as end users have to fight for,” said EFF’s Daly Barnett.
The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade of 1973 that protected access to abortion in the United States. Friday’s ruling stoked new fears from digital privacy advocates who fear the online activity could be used against people seeking abortion care or advocating access to abortion in states where it has become illegal.
“The concern about digital privacy security and data security within the abortion access movement — people seeking an abortion — is very real,” said Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group. based in San Francisco.
Digital rights and privacy advocates such as Barnett warn that the data people generate when they browse the Internet, search for specific terms or interact with abortion providers could be used as criminal evidence in the future.
The potential exists for law enforcement to use a person’s digital footprint against them, Barnett said, including location data and other data generated from their cell phones — as well as their search and browsing histories, the metadata attached to photos. and physical details in photographs.
In 2017, Mississippi prosecutors used a woman’s internet search history for drugs to induce abortion as part of their case against her for the death of her fetus, although a grand jury decided not to prosecute the woman, the Washington reported. post.
Indiana police in 2015 cited a woman’s text messages about ordering abortion pills from Hong Kong in a case against her. She was later convicted of feticide and child neglect and sentenced to 20 years in prison, The New York Times reported in 2015.
In cases where people are criminalized for their pregnancy results, the police can search people’s phones and computers for evidence. That could lead to significant evidence “because people live so much of their lives” through their phones, said Sara Ainsworth, senior legal and policy director at If/When/How, an abortion rights advocacy and policy organization.
There have also been concerns on social media about the use of apps that track menstrual cycles and the data these services and apps store and sell. However, Ainsworth said law enforcement investigating period tracking apps looks unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, while Barnett said there may have been too much focus on such apps in the discussion of data privacy related to abortion care. .
“People’s digital footprint goes far beyond that,” said Barnett. “We’ve already seen cases of people’s search histories being used against them as criminal evidence, and that’s outside of period tracking apps. So while that’s a vector of concern, it’s not the only vector.”
Abortion rights advocates have long said that states’ efforts to criminalize abortion have the greatest impact on low-income people and people of color.
“The majority of people who have been criminalized for terminating their own pregnancy or who are believed to have done so are almost universally, in fact, low-income people, and are disproportionately people of color and immigrants,” Ainsworth said.
“The people I’m most concerned about are the people who are already at risk of being watched by the states,” he added. “The same people who are overly criminalized, and they are people of color and low-income people in every context.”
Advocates call for privacy laws to protect against using data to target people considering abortions
Regardless of Friday’s ruling, Barnett said a comprehensive privacy law is needed to ensure people’s data is protected. People wouldn’t have to struggle to learn about operational security or their own digital security if more comprehensive privacy laws were in place, according to Barnett.
“Privacy shouldn’t be an optional model or something that we as end users have to fight for,” she said. “Must be on by default for all, for all apps.”
Abortion rights and digital privacy advocates have published several guides and best practices to protect your data and minimize your digital footprint. The EFF recommends that people use internet browsers and search engines that focus on privacy and data encryption, such as DuckDuckGo. Barnett said encrypted texting apps like Signal are more secure than other messaging apps and are useful for people beyond those in defense spaces.
People traveling to and from protests or abortion clinics should be sure to restrict their phone’s location tracking settings and disable ad identifiers that follow them online, Barnett said. Setting data-sharing standards, such as not sending images with identifying features and using coded language when talking about abortion, are ways Barnett said people can increase their safety.
“We don’t want people to be paralyzed with fear and unable to address their operational security plans simply because they are overwhelmed,” said Barnett.
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