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U.S. abortion war spotlights women's risk from online tracking

by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 May 2022 17:00 GMT

Law enforcement watch as people rally for abortion rights after an anti-climb protective fence was installed outside of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., May 5, 2022. REUTERS/Leah Millis

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Location tracking, search history, online shopping: with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, privacy advocates are on edge about women's digital footprints

  • Digital footprints can be tracked by authorities, data brokers
  • Prosecutions over pregnancy-related issues have used digital trails
  • Experts urge caution in online activity

By David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A woman's digital footprint risks becoming a dangerous weapon in the escalating U.S. abortion wars, with experts urging women in the crossfire to leave less of a trace if Roe v. Wade falls.

Be it location data, social media posts or search histories - online records will carry greater risk if women lose their constitutional right to an abortion, the researchers say.

"The apps you use, your internet search history and so on - information about you is being collected by third parties all the time," said Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

"And if you build it, they will come."

The warning came after a bombshell leak suggested the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which would leave the country with a patchwork of state-by-state restrictions.

More than half of U.S. states are poised to swiftly ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned when the court issues its eventual ruling, expected by the end of June, says the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group.

The risks thereafter are manifold.

Anti-abortion groups could use data to target pregnant women with ads as they walk into health clinics to make hard choices.

Private companies could sell a pregnant woman's location data - valuable insight given an ever-increasing number of U.S. states are taking steps to ban or restrict abortion access.

And law enforcement could pore over search histories to mount prosecutions - be it of women who end their pregnancy or those who help them - in states with restricted access.

All without a woman's knowledge or consent.

"(There is) certainly nothing preventing law enforcement from using all the tools they have in their toolbox for any type of crime that's related to terminating a pregnancy, even if it's not popular," said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights lawyer and technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, a nonprofit.

She said women seeking information on abortions should take extra precautions and minimize their online exposure, be it using private networks and encrypted messaging apps or turning off location services to guard privacy.  

'SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM'

There are already examples of women who have faced prosecution over pregnancy-related issues that relied, in part, on their digital footprint.

In 2018, a grand jury indicted Mississippi's Latice Fisher for second-degree murder after she experienced a pregnancy loss, in a case that turned in part on her web search history.

Conti-Cook, who highlighted the case in a recent law review article, said the end of Roe v. Wade could open the door for "surveillance capitalism" to expand even further in vast swathes of the United States.

More than 500 abortion restrictions have already been introduced in U.S. state legislatures in 2022 alone, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

"The potential is very, very dangerous," Conti-Cook told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "If you have a hammer, everything is a nail."

McSherry predicted a prolonged battle between states and law enforcement agencies with different stances on abortion, where digital trails could become crucial evidence.

Missouri lawmakers, for example, had pushed legislation that would allow private citizens to sue to prevent a person from assisting someone else to leave the state for an abortion.

"Legally, I think it is going to be a complete mess (over) the next several years," McSherry said. "We will have different states with different rules and we'll be fighting about which rules apply to whom, and how, for many years."

REVERSING COURSE

World over, law enforcement agencies and private data brokers are tracking social media use, location data, online purchases and search histories to map and profile people.

While law enforcement agencies sometimes need a warrant to access such data themselves, it is often offered for sale on the open market by data brokers and ad platforms.

Anti-abortion groups are not shy about using major tech platforms to track women entering abortion clinics and target them with anti-choice messages and advertisements.

This week, SafeGraph, a data company, announced it was removing its Patterns data - which shows how groups of people interact with a location - associated with family planning centers from its self-serve shop, following a report that the data could be easily purchased, possibly putting women at risk.

"While we're confident that our data protects the privacy of individuals, we wanted to go a step further to prevent extreme bad actors from even working with aggregated data, even though to date we've never heard of anyone using our data for malicious purposes," a company spokesperson said by email.

Easy access to such data could heighten concerns in states such as Texas, where private citizens can now sue people for assisting those seeking an abortion - a practice made illegal after six weeks under a law enacted last year.

"You don't need a warrant to purchase (data)," said Conti-Cook, who is watching to see if there will be pressure on platforms to limit the publishing of certain data.

Google recently said it would let users limit the number of ads they see related to a handful of topics, such as pregnancy.

In 2017, Massachusetts reached a settlement with Copley Advertising LLC in which the company agreed not to use location technology to target women entering abortion clinics with ads.

The company complained it had been singled out, and that it had broken no laws.

Maura Healey, the state's attorney general since 2015 who is now running for governor, said then that the case highlighted how geo-fencing technology could be used to harass citizens and interfere with their privacy.

The potential reversal of Roe v. Wade would "fundamentally change so many different aspects of life," Healey said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Which makes it vital to defend the rights of patients and providers in Massachusetts and across the country," she said.

Digital rights groups are advising people seeking abortions to use Virtual Private Networks, turn off location sharing, and use encrypted messaging applications.

Be it the church or the state, Conti-Cook cited a long history of powerful forces seeking control over a pregnant body.

"There's just very modern tools with which they can enforce it in a way that they have never been able to enforce it before," she said.

Related stories:

The high price of America's anti-abortion laws

IN FOCUS: Abortion curbs around the world

U.S. states moving to restrict abortion rights and access

(Reporting by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro. Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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