Calls for tech companies to take a stance against the use of online data to accuse people seeking or providing abortion services increased after the US Supreme Court repealed Roe v Wade judgment last week, declaring that nearly a half-century-old constitutional right to abortion no longer exists.
Advocates for abortion rights and civil liberties have reportedly expressed concerns that there are few federal restrictions on the data that tech companies are allowed to collect and store, making it easier for law enforcement to access potentially incriminating information about a person’s whereabouts, internet searches, and communication history.
In states with stringent abortion restrictions, such information has reportedly been used to prosecute people for miscarriages and pregnancy terminations. In one instance, a woman’s online search for abortion drugs was used against her in court.
Senator Elizabeth Warren said: “We have got to shut down this notion of tracking women’s health histories, tracking women’s locational data, so that extremist states can track these women and prosecute them for making their own medical decision.”
However, as of now, no big digital companies have publicly stated how they will handle such data and address future law enforcement requests, despite the mounting calls for this to happen.
Amid tracking-related concerns, many US women have decided to delete period-tracking apps.
Period tracking app Clue said in a statement: “At this fraught moment, we hear the anger and the anxiety coming from our US community. We remain committed to protecting your reproductive health data.”
Last month, a group of Democrats led by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and California Representative Anna Eshoo wrote to Google, expressing concern that its current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cell phone location data would allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.
This is due to the fact that Google keeps previous location data on hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government authorities.
Two important cases need to be highlighted here. Those of Purvi Patel and Latice Fisher.
After being charged with feticide and neglect of a child following an alleged self-induced abortion, Patel was given a 20-year prison sentence. She had admitted to having a miscarriage that resulted in stillbirth to medical professionals in an emergency room in Indiana.
But text messages between Patel and a friend, in which they discussed obtaining prescription medications intended to cause an abortion, were used as evidence by the prosecution against her.
However, Patel was released from prison when her sentence was reduced in 2016 by an appeals court, which found that the statute wasn’t intended to be used against women for having their own abortions.
In the second case, after giving birth to what Fisher’s attorneys claimed was a stillborn child, she was charged with second-degree murder by a Mississippi grand jury in 2018.
According to accounts from the time, prosecutors utilized Fisher’s search history as evidence against her, including searches for abortion drugs and causing a miscarriage. The charge was withdrawn later by the district attorney.
It is understood that online platforms are in a tough spot as a result of the latest Supreme Court ruling banning abortions. Major tech companies have voiced their opinions on political issues that reflect their values, such as supporting particular privacy laws and immigration reforms that would protect their workforce, but getting involved in a topic as divisive as abortion rights can result in harsh criticism from both sides of the argument.
Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, has urged tech companies to prepare for a future in which they are issued with subpoenas and warrants requesting user data in order to prosecute abortion seekers and providers.
It advises businesses to provide pseudonymous or anonymous access, discontinue behavioral tracking, and to keep as little data as possible. It is also recommended for end-to-end encryption by default and the avoidance of any location data collection.
Additionally, the usage of enhanced data security procedures, such as encrypted messaging and deactivating location tracking, is also being encouraged by experts for those seeking abortions.
However, calls for federal data privacy legislation have increased due to the possibility of overturning the law since the draft decision was initially leaked earlier this year. Senator Warren and other lawmakers submitted a bill last week that would prohibit “data brokers” from selling or transferring location data and health data.
In a statement, the Democratic senator said: “Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere by selling their most private information.”
“With this extremist supreme court poised to overturn Roe v Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential healthcare, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to protect consumers’ sensitive data,” she added.
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