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For people seeking abortions, digital privacy is suddenly critical

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When a person has an abortion, they may choose not to share information with friends and family members. But there is a good chance that their smartphone knows it.

The Supreme Court’s decision to effectively strike down the right to abortion in Roe vs. Wade turns years of digital surveillance warnings into urgent reality in many states. Suddenly, Google searches, location information, period-tracking apps, and other data could be used as evidence of a crime.

There is precedent for this, and privacy advocates say the data collection could become a major liability for people seeking secret abortions. For many women, the ruling highlights Americans’ lack of digital privacy: How can people protect information about their reproductive health when popular apps and websites collect and share clues about it from thousands of times a day ?

Following the leak of a draft decree on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill called the My Body, My Data Act, which would add some federal protections to reproductive health data. It is unlikely to pass without Republican support.

“It’s absolutely something to be worried about – and something to hopefully learn before you get into crisis mode, where learning on the fly might be more difficult,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook. , a technology research fellow at the Ford Foundation.

Privacy advocates responded to the ruling by calling on tech companies to remove information related to reproductive health, or simply collect less of it to begin with. But that data has value for businesses — much of our digital economy relies on companies tracking consumers to figure out how to sell to them. Data can change hands multiple times or leak into a larger market run by data sellers. These brokers can accumulate huge collections of information.

How to follow your period without compromising your privacy

This data is an easy target for subpoenas or court orders, and many tech companies don’t give clear answers about what information they would be willing to hand over. Google, for its part, reports receiving more than 40,000 subpoenas and search warrants in the United States in the first half of 2021.

Police and private citizens could buy data and use it to investigate suspected abortions. Phone location information has been used by activist groups to target ads to people at abortion clinics in an attempt to deter them.

Analyzing all this data isn’t easy, and law enforcement agencies have plenty of “low fruit” to pursue, says Alan Butler, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. These more traditional methods include checking credit card statements, collecting data from cell phone towers, and talking to friends and family.

The very possibility of using phone surveillance to enforce abortion bans will hang over the heads of people who seek abortions or help others obtain them, said Nikolas Guggenberger, executive director of the Yale Information Society Project. “People want to be on the safe side, so even if the law doesn’t apply to what they’re doing, it has a chilling effect,” he said.

A number of groups have published citizen guides for avoiding surveillance when seeking abortion or reproductive health care. These groups include the Digital Defense Fund, the Repro Legal Helpline, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Here are three potential contributors to the data trail on people seeking abortions — and how they could be used.

Phones can collect precise information about your location – down to the building – to power maps and other services. Sometimes, however, the fine print of app privacy policies gives companies the right to sell this information to other companies who can make it available to advertisers or anyone who wants to pay for it.

Vice’s Motherboard blog reported that for $160 he bought a week’s worth of data from a company called SafeGraph showing where people who visited more than 600 Planned Parenthood clinics came from and where they went afterwards.

This type of data could be used, for example, to identify clinics that offer abortions to out-of-state people in places where it is illegal.

SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman told The Washington Post that his company is discussing whether to stop offering aggregate physical traffic data to abortion providers. SafeGraph and companies like it generally do not sell location information related to names or phone numbers, although the company has previously come under fire from privacy advocates and has changed some of its practices to make it more difficult the link of the data with specific persons.

“You can find someone to say they can anonymize the data, but if it could be done, someone would have already written a paper,” Hoffman said.

A priest’s phone location data exposed his private life. It could happen to anyone.

But privacy watchdogs say you can learn a lot by connecting the dots about multiple places that a single person has visited. For example, last year a Catholic blog obtained location information originally generated by the dating app Grindr to label a priest as gay. The blog’s authors were able to deduce that a person in a church-related location was also visiting gay bars.

Both Apple and Android phones offer settings to disable location services for individual apps or entirely for the phone. But it might prevent some functions from working, such as transport apps.

Search and chat history

Searching for clinic and drug information can leave a trail of records with Google, which in some cases logs queries in a user’s profile.

In 2017, prosecutors used internet searches to find abortion drugs as evidence in the trial of a Mississippi woman for the death of her fetus. A grand jury ultimately decided not to pursue the charges, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women. And last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that detectives did not violate the rights of convicted murderer George Burch when, operating without a warrant, they accessed data downloaded from his phone, including his search history. on the Internet.

Private messages can also become evidence. In 2015, text messages about abortion helped a woman be convicted of negligence and feticide.

A 2020 report from Upturn, a tech and justice-focused nonprofit, found that law enforcement is using ‘mobile device forensic tools’ – which can give them access to historical data. Internet as well as unencrypted emails and texts – when investigating issues as varied as marijuana possession and graffiti.

There are steps people can take to keep their search and chat histories private. Ford Foundation’s Conti-Cook said people don’t have to hand over their phones when asked by police, and can opt into encrypted messaging apps and a virtual private network, or VPN, to hide their identity during searches.

Millions of people use apps to help track their menstrual cycles, recording and storing intimate data about their reproductive health. Because this data can reveal when periods, ovulation and pregnancy stop and start, it could become evidence in states where abortion is criminalized.

These companies are proven to play fast and loose with privacy. In 2019, Ovia Period Tracker was pushed back for sharing aggregate family planning data from some users with their employers.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission settled with rule-tracking app Flo after the app promised to keep user data private but then shared it with marketing companies such as Facebook. and Google.

A recent Consumer Reports investigation found flaws in the way five popular period-tracking apps handle sensitive user data, including sending it to third parties for targeted advertising.

Over 100 million women use Flo, a period tracker app. Here’s why some delete it.

How are apps allowed to share this personal data? Our interactions with healthcare providers are covered by a federal privacy law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. However, rule-tracking apps are not defined as covered entities, so they can legally share data.

Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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Post expires at 7:58pm on Monday July 4th, 2022

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