How Big Data would limit access to abortion in a post-roe world | national news


Since last month, abortion-rights supporters have gathered on the steps of state houses, marched on crowded street corners and demonstrated outside the Supreme Court itself after a draft opinion leaked suggested that Roe v. Wade would be canceled. In their opposition, they touted a familiar refrain: “We’re not going back.”

Although the Supreme Court is expected in the coming weeks to return abortion to the states, which dictated its accessibility before the Roe decision in 1973, the national abortion access landscape and its application will probably not return to where it was before the historic decision. . Some experts say that due to advances in technology, access to abortion in places where it is banned – although probably safer medically than before Roe – will have much wider legal consequences in a post-Roe world. .

Personal data opens a new frontier for abortion law enforcement, surveillance experts warn. Whether it’s monitoring search history and texts, tracking location data, or using period tracker apps that some women use to monitor their menstrual cycles, an abundance of information gleaned from a small device in the pocket makes what advocates call a not-so-private personal healthcare decision and likely poses a much greater ability to enforce upcoming abortion bans in many states.

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Even with Roe still intact, it’s already started.

A woman in Indiana was accused of illegally inducing an abortion and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 after recovering text messages between her and a friend about ordering pills from a pharmacy overseas. A few years later, in Mississippi, a woman’s cell phone search history, which included searches for abortion pills, was used as evidence against her after a miscarriage. She was later accused with second degree murder. And just last month, news broke that a company was selling location data of people who visit hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics.

“If these things happen while Roe is still good law, then you can only imagine how far it will go,” says Grace Howard, a forensic studies professor at San Jose State University who studies the criminalization of pregnancy.

Currently, Roe v. Wade protects the right to abortion until the fetus can survive outside the womb. But a leaked draft opinion suggests the Supreme Court is set to overturn the nearly half-century-old precedent any day now. The ruling would return abortion to states, 26 of which are certain or probable prohibit the procedure with a few exceptions, according to the projections. In these states, and perhaps beyond, the data can be used to identify women who attempt to circumvent the law to obtain an abortion or to punish providers.

Law enforcement is already using digital surveillance techniques to track and, in some cases, prosecute pregnant women, according to a report published last week by the non-profit organization Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which notes that surveillance is likely “to accelerate significantly in the months and years following Roe’s repeal.”

The report suggests that as anti-abortion states have progressively eviscerated abortion access, forcing abortion clinics to close and imposing cumbersome hurdles on those seeking the procedure, women have become increasingly reliant on the Internet to terminate their pregnancies, given a recent FDA decision. which has perpetuated a pandemic policy allowing women to receive abortion pills in the mail following a telehealth visit with a provider.

But internet search engines are a “particularly powerful tool”, the report says, with police able to both obtain search histories from an individual’s device and also by acquiring records directly from from search engines – with and sometimes without a warrant.

“Research results can provide an intimate window into pregnant women’s thoughts, but they can easily be misinterpreted,” the report said. “Benign medical questions can be misasked and misinterpreted as part of an effort to end a pregnancy, even if it actually ended unintentionally.”

Even if people seeking abortion avoid searching for resources on the Internet or use private browsers, surveillance takes other forms.

Period-tracking apps, used by millions of Americans to track their menstrual cycles, help them get pregnant or avoid pregnancy, have been identified as a potential new mechanism for law enforcement or others to target women who may have had an abortion.

The apps, which have been called an “emerging government watchdog”, store vast amounts of intimate information that could be used to suggest someone has had an abortion and do not appear to be off limits to investigators. In 2019, a investigation by The Wall Street Journal identified that a period-tracking app notified Facebook when a user was on their period or planning to get pregnant.

Yet without logging data or using a browser to search for abortion services, a person’s location tracked by ordinary apps like a weather app on their phone can be used by those enforcing abortion bans.

Sixteen senators sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission last week, urging the agency to take action to protect the location data of people seeking abortions, expressing concern about online marketplaces that sell and trade cellphone location data.

Referring to recent reports, including one from Vice’s Motherboard last month which identified how location data company SafeGuard obtained location information from regular apps on cellphones and sold information about abortion clinic visits for just over $160 for a week of data on more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites, lawmakers led by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, asked the FTC to outline its plans to protect private citizen data , including outlining how the agency will work with the Justice Department and others to prevent data brokers from obtaining personal information about “women and their health decisions.”

“In light of reports that the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v Wade, we are concerned about the privacy of women who make decisions that should be between themselves, their families and their doctors, as they have been doing for more than five decades,” the lawmakers wrote.

As a result, a group of more than 40 lawmakers last week called on Google to stop collecting and storing users’ location data unnecessarily, “to prevent this information from being used by right-wing prosecutors to identify people who have had abortions”.

“If abortion is made illegal by the far-right Supreme Court and Republican lawmakers, it is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will win legal warrants to hunt down, prosecute and imprison women for obtaining essential reproductive health care. “wrote the group of lawmakers. in a letter to the CEO of Google. “The only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place.”

Experts have also expressed concern about states like Texas and Oklahoma using a mechanism that delegates private citizens to enforce their abortion laws and how these can intersect with personal data. According to the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project report, police and prosecutors can use their surveillance powers to help private citizens who already have access to “commercial surveillance products and open-source intelligence platforms.”

The situation becomes even more serious, supporters say, if fetuses gain personality — a step that some have identified as the next frontier of the anti-abortion movement.

“If you think about any type of digital evidence that we can use for prosecutions of other types of crimes, especially if we define pregnancy loss of any kind as a form of murder or manslaughter , we’re supposed to pull our big guns out when we’re investigating murders and manslaughters,” Howard says. “And so it would make sense for them to use browser history, web search history , text messaging – even location trackers are potentially something that could be used here.”

Surveillance has been a tactic of some anti-abortion people for decades — whether it’s tracking the license plates of people entering abortion clinics or filming abortion providers or publicly identifying them. But advances in technology distinguish present-moment surveillance capabilities from the past.

Even if states revert to their pre-Roe bans, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project report notes that reversing Roe will not return the country to 1973.

“It will lead us to a much darker future, a future where antiquated abortion laws are enforced with cutting-edge technology,” he says.

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