Troves of personal information gathered by cellphone providers, apps, online retailers and search engines could all come into play as part of criminal investigations under new state-level abortion bans following the Supreme Court’s decision to effectively reverse Roe v. Wade last week.
While a host of major U.S. tech companies announced changes to health care plans aiming to bolster benefits for employees who may now need to travel out of their home states for some procedures, many of those same businesses have so far remained reticent about their plans to protect personal digital information in the face of a potential new wave of law enforcement inquiry.
Your digital footprint as evidence: Suddenly, things you’ve searched on Google, location information stored by your cellphone providers and/or smartphone apps, period tracking apps and other data could be used as evidence of a crime, The Washington Post reports.
There is precedent for it, and privacy advocates say data collection could become a major liability for people seeking abortions in secret. For many women, the ruling puts Americans’ lack of digital privacy in sharp relief: How can people protect information about their reproductive health when popular apps and websites collect and share clues about it thousands of times a day?
Following the leak of a draft ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Democratic legislators introduced a bill called the My Body, My Data Act, which would add some federal protections for reproductive health data. It is unlikely to pass without support from Republicans, according to the Post.
“It is absolutely something to be concerned about — and something to learn about, hopefully before being in a crisis mode, where learning on the fly might be more difficult,” Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, told The Washington Post.
Mum’s the word: Motherboard reports that following Friday’s court ruling, it contacted a slew of tech companies, social networks and telecommunications giants including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Google, Amazon, Discord, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile; financially focused companies, including Binance, Kraken, CashApp, Coinbase and Venmo as well as rideshare companies Uber and Lyft.
Motherboard asked each company if it would provide data in response to requests from law enforcement if the case concerns users seeking or providing abortions, or some other context in which the agency is investigating abortions. Motherboard also asked generally what each company is planning to protect user data in a post-Roe America.
None of the companies answered the questions, Motherboard reports. Representatives from Twitter and Snapchat replied to say they were looking into the request, but they did not provide a statement or other response.
Personal data is already being widely shared, including with law enforcement agencies. Our collective and individual personal data has value for companies — much of our digital economy is built on companies tracking consumers to figure out how to sell to them, per The Washington Post. The data may change hands several times or seep into a broader marketplace run by data sellers. Such brokers can amass huge collections of information.
That data is an easy target for subpoenas or court orders, and many tech companies, as Motherboard discovered, do not give straight answers about what information they would be willing to hand over. Google, for one, reports that it received more than 40,000 subpoenas and search warrants in the United States in the first half of 2021.
CNBC reports that even before the decision became official, lawmakers called on Google and the Federal Trade Commission to ensure data for online consumers seeking care would be protected in the event that the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling was overturned. The letters came in the wake of Politico’s reporting on a leaked draft decision that would cut back the protections.
Advocates for people who have sought abortions or those prosecuted after experiencing a pregnancy loss say they have already contended with privacy concerns in states with restrictive abortion statutes.
“We’ve already seen, but we anticipate, that tech companies will be issued subpoenas for people’s search histories and search information,” Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit that provides legal defense for pregnant people, told CNBC.
“The problem is that, if you build it, they will come,” Corynne McSherry, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNBC. “If you create huge databases of information, what you’re also creating is sort of a honeypot for law enforcement to come to you, you being a third party, and try to get that information if they think it’s useful for prosecutions.”