Despite the overturning of Roe v. Wade, safe and effective abortion remains much more accessible than it was during pre-Roe times. People in states where abortion clinics have closed can still find ways to access care, including ordering abortion pills or visiting an out-of-state provider.
Many of these options rely on digital technologies. But as certain states pursue further legislation against abortion, some experts warn that personal data on digital devices and online platforms could be used as incriminating evidence in abortion-related legal cases.
Such concerns are not unfounded. This week, court documents showed that Facebook turned over the chats of a mother and daughter to Nebraska police after receiving a warrant as part of an investigation into an illegal abortion. The alleged chats, which show messages concerning pills and how to take them, are now being used as evidence in the case.
“The importance that people place on their data—which should have always been high—should now be a priority,” says Laura Lázaro Cabrera, legal officer at Privacy International. “The risk now is not just that data will be stored by product companies, but that it will also be shared with law enforcement.”
Since 2000, at least 61 people who self-managed an abortion or helped someone else seek an abortion are known to have been arrested or prosecuted. The risk of criminalization is likely higher now that the procedure is illegal in several states. Some legislators are trying to implement further restrictions, such as prohibiting the possession of abortion pills or banning residents from getting out-of-state abortions.
It’s still unclear how big of a risk an individual’s digital footprint will pose in the prosecution of an abortion, especially with legislation still in flux, but it’s certainly a growing concern, says Daly Barnett, staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The risk applies not only to pregnant people seeking an abortion, but also to individuals who help others access the procedure.
“I’m in favor of people being more proactive now rather than protecting themselves in reactionary ways,” Barnett says. “There’s a great, thriving privacy ecosystem that has been used elsewhere for decades and is happy to lend its tools, insight, and resources to the burgeoning concerns around reproductive health care and justice.”
If you are concerned about the privacy of your digital footprint, the following are good precautions to take.
Compartmentalize your online activity
Start off by dissociating your abortion-related activity from the rest of your online engagement. This means using a separate, privacy-focused browser, phone number, and email address for any research or communications around sensitive subjects. Keeping information compartmentalized away from other aspects of your life will make it harder to trace data back to you.
- Brave and Tor are free browsers that allow you to search and browse privately. Barnett recommends using a privacy-focused browser over incognito mode. Incognito mode doesn’t hide your browsing from your internet service provider, school, or employer, and it also doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be tracked by any of the websites you visit.
- Burner and Hushed are apps that provide temporary second phone numbers. Google Voice is a free option. These services allow you to keep your call log and messages in the application instead of in your phone company’s records.
- Proton Mail and Tutanota are free privacy-focused email services.
Limit your phone’s tracking abilities
It’s also important to consider the digital footprint you may be leaving through your phone, which likely goes beyond search histories and email or text communications. Phones are able to collect all kinds of data through location services, ad identifiers, and unencrypted messaging apps. Law enforcement agencies can easily access this trove of personal data if they have your phone. If you are traveling to an abortion clinic or using apps to manage your health care, you may want to assess your phone’s tracking abilities.
- Restrict or turn off your phone’s location services when traveling to and from a risky destination or event, such as an abortion clinic or a reproductive justice rally.
- Disable your phone’s ad ID. Your ad ID gives third parties the ability to track and profile you across the apps you use. They can then sell that data to other companies. By disabling your ad ID, you are restricting companies’ abilities to track you.
- Use Signal or another end-to-end encrypted messaging app for sensitive communications. These apps guarantee that only the communicating users can read the messages. If you want to be extra careful, turn on the disappearing messages feature within these apps.
Switch to a privacy-focused period tracking app
Period tracking apps allow users to track their menstrual cycles and record other intimate health information, such as when a pregnancy stopped or started. If subpoenaed or sold to a third party, this data can be used to suggest that someone has had or is considering an abortion.
“We sometimes make assumptions when we’re typing out intimate data that it’s only stored locally or it isn’t available to anyone else,” Cabrera says. “But in truth, if data is stored in the company server, then it’s accessible by them. And if it’s accessible by them, then they’re in the position to share it with third parties and onward. That’s a concern right now.”
To minimize the risk that your intimate health data ends up in the wrong hands, switch to a privacy-focused period tracking app like Euki or Drip, which promise not to store any user information. Cabrera also recommends reconsidering your level of engagement on these apps and the amount of data you want to input in the first place.
However, experts largely agree that data collected by period tracking apps is not the biggest security concern at present. The most common scenario that leads to legal action against someone for an abortion is when another citizen turns them in to the police. The police may then require or pressure the suspected individual into a device search, which gives law enforcement data like search histories and text messages. Law enforcement can use this data to attempt to claim someone’s intention to seek an abortion.
The ongoing abortion case in Nebraska exemplifies this process. According to the police, the investigation began in April when they received a tip from a woman who described herself as a friend of the daughter’s and said she saw the daughter take the first abortion pill. In June, the police got a warrant to seize six smartphones and seven laptops and compel Facebook to turn over chats between the mother and daughter.
“All tech companies, not just ones in the reproductive health care space, have a responsibility to reevaluate their data retention policies, whether or not they allow pseudonymous access, and their policies around responding to law enforcement subpoenas,” Barnett says. “These are all things that tech companies need to think about as we see how data can be used against users.”
Know and advocate for your digital rights
Much of the power in ensuring digital privacy lies in the hands of tech companies. It’s up to them to commit to storing personal data locally or refrain from sharing it with other entities. In the meantime, individuals can educate themselves on their digital rights and minimize the risk of being blindsided.
- Adopt a privacy-focused mindset when interacting on digital platforms. Think about the risks when it comes to enabling location services or choosing a weak password. “More and more people are waking up to the realization that privacy is more important than convenience,” Barnett says.
- Start looking over privacy policies, especially for websites and apps where you may be sharing more sensitive data. Find out if and for how long they store your data, if and with whom they share your data, and how they may respond to subpoenas.
- Head to the Digital Defense Fund or If/When/How to learn more about your individual digital rights.
- Advocate for the My Body, My Data Act, which aims to strengthen digital privacy and protect personal reproductive health information.