Protecting Digital Privacy in the Face of Abortion Restrictions: A Growing Concern for Tech Giants

With the recent or impending bans on abortion in numerous states and the severe restrictions in many more, the spotlight is now on Big Tech companies that collect extensive user data. These companies are facing mounting pressure to limit their monitoring and surveillance practices, with concerns that such data could potentially be misused, especially by law enforcement or vigilantes targeting individuals seeking abortion services or medical care for pregnancy complications.

The history of data privacy has repeatedly shown that when personal information is tracked and stored, there is a risk of it being abused or misused. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, data such as location data, text messages, search histories, emails, and seemingly innocuous period and ovulation-tracking apps could be used against individuals seeking abortions and those providing support.

“In the digital age, this decision opens the door to law enforcement and private bounty hunters seeking vast amounts of personal information from everyday Americans,” warned Alexandra Reeve Givens, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based digital rights nonprofit.

Until recently, anyone could purchase a weekly dataset containing information on users of over 600 Planned Parenthood sites across the country for as little as $160. This data included approximate patient addresses, income brackets, time spent at the clinic, and the locations people frequented before and after their clinic visits. This was possible because federal law, specifically HIPAA (the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), protects the privacy of medical information at healthcare providers but not data collected by third-party apps or tech companies.

In a case from 2017, a Black woman in Mississippi named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder when she sought medical care for a pregnancy loss. During her medical treatment, her digital information, including her online search history, was turned over to local law enforcement. This case illustrates how digital data can be used in legal proceedings, potentially leading to wrongful accusations.

Fisher’s case is not an isolated incident. In 2019, a young Ohio mother’s internet search history was presented as evidence in her trial on charges of killing her newborn. Defense attorneys argued that the baby was stillborn, and the mother was ultimately acquitted.

Tech companies have largely avoided addressing the issue of abortion and how they handle user data in such cases. They have not disclosed how they might cooperate with law enforcement or government agencies seeking to prosecute individuals seeking illegal abortions or those aiding them.

Recently, four Democratic lawmakers requested federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users by allowing the collection and sale of their personal data to third parties. The lawmakers expressed concerns that people seeking abortions and reproductive healthcare could become more vulnerable to privacy violations, including the collection and sharing of location data.

Governments and law enforcement agencies can subpoena tech companies for user data, and while Big Tech firms generally comply with these requests, they may refuse if they perceive them as overly broad. Online rights advocates argue that tech companies need to do more to protect users’ digital privacy, especially in cases involving sensitive issues like abortion.

To safeguard their digital privacy, individuals in states with abortion restrictions are advised to limit the creation of such data. This includes turning off location services on their phones when seeking reproductive healthcare and carefully reviewing the privacy policies of health-related apps. Privacy-focused web browsers like Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo are recommended, but users should double-check their privacy settings. Additionally, turning off ad identifiers on both Apple and Android devices can prevent advertisers from tracking users, enhancing overall privacy.

As the battle over abortion rights continues, the protection of digital privacy has become an integral part of the broader conversation. Tech companies, lawmakers, and users alike must navigate this complex landscape to ensure that personal data is not misused or abused in the pursuit of ideological or legal agendas.