EXPLAINER: Online privacy in a post-Roe world

The case of a Nebraska woman accused of helping her teenage daughter terminate her pregnancy after investigators obtained Facebook messages between the two has raised new data privacy concerns in the post-Roe world. .

Since before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, big tech companies that collect their users’ personal data have faced renewed calls to limit such tracking and surveillance, fearing that law enforcement or vigilantes do not use these treasure troves of data against people seeking abortions. or those who try to help them.

Facebook owner Meta said on Tuesday that he received warrants seeking messages in the Nebraska case from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe was released. The warrants, the company added, “did not mention abortion at all, and court documents from the time showed police were investigating “the alleged unlawful cremation and burial of a stillborn child. “.

However, at the beginning of June, the mother and the daughter were charged with only one crime for abduction, concealment or abandonment of a body, and two offenses: concealment of the death of others and false reporting.

It wasn’t until about a month later, after investigators reviewed Facebook’s private messages, that prosecutors added the criminal abortion charges against the mother.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that whenever people’s personal data is tracked and stored, there is always a risk that it will be misused or abused. With the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade in 1973 which legalized abortion, collected location data, text messages, search histories, emails and seemingly innocuous period and ovulation tracking apps could be used to prosecute people who seek an abortion – or medical care for a miscarriage – as well as those who assist them.

“In the digital age, this decision opens the door to law enforcement and private bounty hunters seeking vast amounts of private data of ordinary Americans,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, President and CEO of director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based organization. non-profit digital rights.


Facebook owner Meta said he received a legal warrant from law enforcement regarding the case, which did not mention the word “abortion.” The company said officials at the social media giant “always review every government request we receive to ensure it is legally valid” and that Meta fights back against requests it deems invalid or overbroad.

But the company provided information to investigators in about 88% of the 59,996 cases in which the government requested data in the second half of last year, according to its transparency report. Meta declined to comment on whether her response would have been different if the warrant had mentioned the word “abortion.”


Until last May, anyone could buy a wealth of weekly customer data from more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites across the country for as little as $160, according to a recent Vice survey. The files included the patients’ approximate addresses – derived from where their mobile phones ‘slept’ at night – income brackets, time spent at the clinic and major places visited before and after.

All of this is possible because federal law — specifically, HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — protects the privacy of medical records at your doctor’s office, but not information that apps third parties or technology companies collect about you. This is also true if an app that collects your data shares it with a third party who could misuse it.

In 2017, a black Mississippi woman named Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder after seeking medical treatment for a pregnancy loss.

“While she was receiving treatment from medical personnel, she was also immediately treated with suspicion of having committed a crime,” civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her article. from 2020, “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary”. “Fisher’s statements to nurses, medical records and autopsy records of her fetus have been turned over to local police to investigate that she intentionally killed her fetus,” she wrote.

Fisher was charged with second degree murder in 2018; conviction could have resulted in life imprisonment. The murder charge was later dismissed. The evidence against her, however, included her online search history, which included queries on how to induce miscarriage and how to buy abortion pills online.

“Her digital data gave prosecutors a ‘window into (her) soul’ to support their general theory that she did not want the fetus to survive,” Conti-Cook wrote.


Although many companies have announced policies to protect their own employees by paying for out-of-state travel needed to obtain an abortion, tech companies have said little about how they might cooperate with law enforcement. or government agencies trying to prosecute people seeking abortions where it’s illegal – or helping someone to do so.

In June, Democratic lawmakers asked federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users into allowing their personal data to be collected and sold to third parties.

The following month, Google announced it would automatically purge information about users who visit abortion clinics or other places that could trigger legal issues following the Supreme Court ruling.

Governments and law enforcement may ask companies to provide data about their users. Generally, Big Tech policies suggest that companies will comply with requests for abortion-related data unless they consider them too broad. Meta, for example, pointed to its Online Transparency Report, which states that “we comply with government requests for user information only when we believe in good faith that the law requires us to do so.”

Online rights advocates say that’s not enough. In the case of Nebraska, for example, neither Meta nor law enforcement could have read the messages if they had been “end-to-end encrypted”, as messages on Meta’s WhatsApp service are protected by default.

“Meta needs to flip the switch and make end-to-end encryption a default in all private messages, including on Facebook and Instagram. It will literally save the lives of pregnant women,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future.


Unless all of your data is securely encrypted, there’s always a chance that someone, somewhere can access it. So abortion rights activists suggest that residents of states where abortion is banned should limit the creation of such data in the first place.

For example, they urge turning off phone location services — or just leaving your phone at home — when seeking reproductive health care. To be sure, they say, it’s a good idea to read the privacy policies of any health apps you use.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using more privacy-conscious web browsers such as Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo, but also recommends double-checking their privacy settings.

There are also ways to disable advertising IDs on Apple and Android phones that prevent advertisers from tracking you. This is generally a good idea in any case. Apple will ask you if you want to be tracked every time you download a new app. For apps that you have already installed, tracking can be disabled manually.

Comments are closed.