Online Privacy Will Be Critical If ‘Roe Vs Wade’ Is Spilled
About 10 years ago, a story about Target’s incredible ability to detect a customer’s pregnancy made waves. An angry man had walked into a Target store in Minneapolis, demanding to speak to a manager and showing flashing coupons his teenage daughter had received in the mail for baby clothes and cribs. “Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” he asked. It turned out that his daughter was already pregnant, and Target had figured that out before him.
Data mining has improved since then, but thankfully our privacy tools have improved too. A leaked draft decision suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1974 decision that gave women the right to abortion. This would make online privacy more critical than ever for women and healthcare providers, as abortion secrecy would become integral not only for personal reasons, but also to avoid legal ramifications or backlash. vigilantes. It’s unclear who would be legally responsible for an abortion in the nearly a dozen or more US states that may ban it. But many women would like to hide their online activity as a precaution. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden warned on Tuesday that “every digital record – from web searches to phone records and app data – will be weaponized in Republican states to control women’s bodies.”
One of the first things many women who need an abortion do is seek advice online. This will not change. But if they live in one of the 22 states that would likely ban abortion, they better hide their browsing history and use encrypted messaging apps to tell others about their plans. If abortion pills were also banned, women might turn to the dark web for them, which they already do, according to a study. Women may also turn to VPNs to prevent mobile network providers and search engines from seeing their browsing habits. They will clear their web histories, use private browsing windows, or use more privacy-focused browsers like Firefox.
Such tools, normally associated with political dissidents in autocratic regimes, could become far more important for American women in a post-Roe vs. Wade world. A tech news site reported that a location data firm was already selling information about visits to abortion clinics, tracking apps on groups of phones.
The Internet presents risks, but also helps, such as telemedicine services that offer medication for abortion. Many women in the United States have flocked to services like Aid Access to acquire such drugs; the Women on Web site offers services to women around the world. Depending on location, the pills can cost around $90, compared to $600 or more to get the procedure done at a clinic, a cost prohibitive for many women who need abortions.
Online collectives like Facebook’s Auntie Networks will also become increasingly important. These are pages run by people offering a spare room in US states where abortion is legal, for women who need the procedure. A 2019 report in The Washington Post described how some Auntie Network pages suggested taking selfies at local sites as “proof” that the trip was just a vacation. A host from Iowa said he would be “happy to send you a birthday card” that included birth control, a Plan B pill or a pregnancy test. As well-intentioned as these moves are, this is sensitive information hosted by a social media company that is already being used by third parties, in this case advertisers.
In the meantime, an upcoming law in the EU that limits the power of big tech companies could have the unintended consequence of making the data of people in the United States more vulnerable to surveillance. The EU Digital Markets Act, which will come into force in the next few years, obliges the world’s largest digital companies to make their products compatible with those of their competitors. This means that messaging apps like WhatsApp will have to co-exist with less secure services like SMS. But some cryptography experts say making these tools interoperable will break their encryption standards, which could put women seeking abortions at greater risk.
Social media and search platforms have been exploited for years by the surveillance advertising industry. How resistant will they be to future government efforts to enforce the abortion ban? What if prosecutors order Facebook or Google to identify women who break the rules? Given the libertarian ethos of many of Silicon Valley’s billionaire founders and the legal fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden, it’s hard to see such companies giving in to government demands to crack their encryption and hand over such details. But put enough financial pressure on a business and anything can happen. For now, encryption and online privacy tools are a sacred right for women who wish to have an abortion. They must not become a luxury.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.