The landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which secured a woman’s constitutional right to access abortion, has been a pivotal point in the ongoing debate over reproductive rights in the United States. However, the recent erosion of these rights has raised concerns among digital privacy professionals, such as Stanford’s Riana Pfefferkorn. In a world where online behavior can be used against individuals, the intersection of reproductive healthcare and digital privacy becomes increasingly important. TR Griffin will explore the significance of digital privacy, the potential threats in a post-Roe world, and the need for comprehensive federal protection of data privacy.
The Nexus of Reproductive Rights and Digital Privacy
In the contemporary landscape of the internet, the collection of user data by websites and applications has become pervasive. Additionally, the legal framework often allows authorities to access this data, sometimes without the necessity of obtaining a warrant. This combination of factors highlights how the seemingly innocuous digital tools individuals use daily can be weaponized against them. Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, sheds light on the complex interplay between digital privacy and reproductive rights.
Digital Privacy and Its Relevance Post-Roe
The absence of a robust federal framework for safeguarding data privacy in the United States is a pressing concern. Years of lax regulation regarding the collection, storage, use, and disclosure of digital data by private entities have left a significant gap in privacy protection. This issue takes on greater significance in a post-Roe world for two primary reasons:
- Law Enforcement Access: With the right legal processes in place, law enforcement agencies can approach private entities that store digital data and request access to it. For example, with a valid warrant, authorities can obtain email content, browser history, or search history from a search engine. In some cases, legal processes may not even be necessary, as law enforcement can procure data about individuals from data brokers without warrants.
- Hostile Entities: Entities opposing abortion rights can collect information about individuals seeking reproductive healthcare and misuse it for purposes contrary to the individual’s best interests. Crisis pregnancy centers, for instance, employ deceptive tactics to gather data from those seeking abortion information. They are adept at leveraging online tracking and advertising technologies.
To address these issues, both technology companies and pro-choice legislators are grappling with ways to enhance online privacy protections related to abortion.
The Case for Privacy: “Nothing to Hide” Is Not an Argument
Some individuals may argue that they have nothing to hide and therefore have nothing to fear from digital surveillance. However, the erosion of reproductive rights in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s reversal serves as a stark reminder of how seemingly benign digital surveillance can quickly turn malevolent. What was once a constitutional right for half a century can overnight become a criminal act in many parts of the country. Protecting digital privacy is akin to “future-proofing” against potential changes in political climate and ideologies.
Furthermore, privacy extends beyond legal matters. Each person has facets of their life that are inherently private. These aspects are not illegal, immoral, or unethical; they are merely personal. Privacy is essential for preserving the sanctity of our thoughts, conversations, and relationships. Ensuring privacy should not be an arduous task for individuals. Instead, it requires robust legislation that empowers citizens and protects their digital lives from exploitation.
Assessing President Biden’s Executive Order on Data Privacy
President Biden’s recent Executive Order (EO) addressing data privacy and patient information is a promising first step. However, it largely delegates the specifics to other stakeholders. The EO acknowledges the challenges of passing comprehensive legislation through Congress, whether related to abortion rights or broader online and offline privacy concerns.
The EO also recognizes the expertise of federal agencies, urging them to think creatively about leveraging regulatory powers. Key agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission have been identified as central players in protecting abortion access and reproductive privacy at the federal level. Additionally, agencies supporting specific populations, such as servicemembers and their families, are acknowledged for their crucial role in safeguarding data privacy.
While the EO is a positive development, it could go further in its scope. As highlighted in a recent op-ed, state investigators may seek federal assistance in collecting digital evidence from individuals suspected of seeking, having, or providing abortions. The federal government should categorically refuse to allow its resources to be used in prosecuting individuals for state-level abortion-related offenses.
Practical Steps for Managing Digital Privacy
In addition to government actions, individuals can take steps to manage their online data and reduce their digital footprint. Here are some practical recommendations:
- Use Encrypted Messaging Apps: Employ end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like Signal to safeguard private conversations from eavesdroppers. Enable disappearing messages to ensure chats vanish after a specific period.
- Explore Privacy-Oriented Browsers: Consider using privacy-oriented web browsers like Tor or Firefox Focus. Install browser extensions such as AdBlock and Privacy Badger to block ads and hinder online trackers.
- Anonymous Search Engines: Opt for search engines like DuckDuckGo that do not log your search queries. If you prefer your current search engine, adjust its settings to prevent the storage of your search history.
- Review App Permissions: Examine the access privileges granted to apps on your mobile device. Be vigilant about the data they collect and their reasons for doing so.
- Cloud Backup Scrutiny: Review what data is backing up to the cloud and consider whether certain information, such as messaging conversations, should not be backed up.
Responsibility of Tech Companies
Tech companies also bear responsibility in protecting user data and privacy. They should:
- Audit Data Practices: Regularly assess the data they collect, how long it is retained, the security measures in place, and whether data can be reasonably linked to specific individuals.
- Minimize Data Collection: Minimize the collection of unnecessary data and avoid collecting personally identifiable information unless absolutely necessary.
- Enhance Access Controls: Tighten internal access controls to prevent employee abuse of data access privileges, a recurring issue in the tech industry.
As Roe v. Wade faces increasing threats, the importance of digital privacy in a post-Roe world cannot be overstated. With the potential for law enforcement to access personal data and hostile entities misusing information, comprehensive federal protections for digital privacy are urgently needed. President Biden’s Executive Order is a step in the right direction, but further action is necessary to ensure privacy in the digital age. Individuals can take steps to protect their online data, but the responsibility also falls on tech companies and the government to safeguard digital privacy rights for all. Privacy is a fundamental aspect of personal autonomy, and its preservation is essential for a free and just society.