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OPINION: Roe V. Wade reversal displays urgent need for firms to end abusive data practices

by Jordyn Paul-Slater and Anna Bonesteel | Fight for the Future
Friday, 1 July 2022 08:39 GMT

An abortion rights protester participates in nationwide demonstrations following the leaked Supreme Court opinion suggesting the possibility of overturning the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, in Houston, Texas, U.S., May 14, 2022. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To truly protect ourselves and our communities from abortion surveillance, we have to make surveillance less profitable - and that’s the responsibility of companies and lawmakers, not individuals.

By Jordyn Paul-Slater and Anna Bonesteel, Fight for the Future

In the wake of the Dobbs decision, fears of reproductive surveillance have spawned a new urgency around digital security. We’ve been told to delete period tracking apps, turn off location services, and use secure web browsers like TOR. While it’s true that we could all stand to be more conscious of our digital privacy, this advice misses the bigger picture. To truly protect ourselves and our communities from abortion surveillance, we have to make surveillance less profitable - and that’s the responsibility of companies and lawmakers, not individuals. 

The reversal of Roe v. Wade has turned the human-rights clock back to the 70s, but the world we live in has fundamentally changed. Deadly bans on abortion care will now be enforced through one of the largest police surveillance apparatuses ever known. And to make matters worse, forced birth extremists can now deputize private companies’ data hoards against people seeking healthcare. Tech companies are dependent on our data. But because our privacy laws haven’t kept up, we are woefully exposed to private companies’ whims.

There is no comprehensive federal protection from the collection and retention of our personal information, so law enforcement can grab our private information through a geofence or reverse search warrant - or they can simply go out and buy it. Our location history, faceprint, and fertility data all have a price tag. 

Specious advice to delete period tracking apps gained steam because period app developers like Flo and Stardust have sold, or have said they’ll give up details about menstruation, ovulation, and sexual activity that could be used by law enforcement to accuse someone of having an abortion. That’s frightening stuff. But things that track us are everywhere - as privacy advocates have said loudly and repeatedly - and the onus shouldn’t be on individuals to combat an indefatigable policing system. To protect people’s bodily rights, we have to start from the top, and that means companies and lawmakers have to step up to the plate. 

While some large companies have announced they’ll provide their workers resources to travel or relocate to states without anti-abortion laws, the single best way to demonstrate real solidarity is to reform their data-hoarding business models. As Fight for the Future said last week, any company, large or small, that collects and stores user data should have an emergency meeting on the books about how they’ll limit the collection and retention of any information that could be weaponized against abortion seekers, abortion providers, and reproductive rights activists.

That could mean retention policy changes. It could mean better encryption standards, or plans for how to respond to data requests from law enforcement. Or it could mean moving to a subscription-based, not ad-based, business model. But we have to be very honest: covering employees' travel isn’t enough when millions of people - especially poorer people and people of color - face forced births or criminal convictions for exerting control over their own bodies.

In addition, companies cannot claim to support abortion rights while actively lobbying against privacy legislation that would protect abortion patients and providers, or to undermine privacy bills. And legislators should fight for privacy laws with strict limits on what data companies are allowed to collect and how long they can retain that data.

Employees at the biggest tech companies have a role to play here. The Washington Post reported that abortion rights advocates inside Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google are struggling with their companies’ complicity, and are fighting to be heard. For employees at these companies, steps like whistleblowing, walkouts, and collective action can pressure decision makers to address the harms amplified by their products.

We deserve a world without mass surveillance - a world we can move through without worrying about who’s buying, and selling, our digital tracks. To protect people seeking and providing abortions or advocating for abortion rights, companies and lawmakers must take bold action to deconstruct surveillance business practices. If they don’t, they’ll remain complicit in this Court’s systematic rollback of human rights.