Abortion Law: US digital Giants face danger related to personal data

International 27 June, 2022

Those who seek, offer or facilitate access to abortion must now assume that all the data they leave on the Internet or anywhere else can be found by the authorities. The statement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the main organization for the protection of digital freedoms in the United States, as of Friday, June 24, outlines the challenges facing the technology industry after the high-profile decision of the Supreme Court on the right to abortion.

«The difference between today and the latest abortion ban in the United States is that we live in an unprecedented era of digital surveillance», – said Eva Halperin, head of the organization.

Returning to the Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court allows every U.S. state to ban abortions. Almost half of them could go in this direction, thirteen of them have already voted for trigger laws, that is, laws designed to come into force quickly after the decision of the highest court. Across the country, observers are now concerned about how authorities may use personal data collected by digital companies.

In states that may soon ban abortions, many digital footprints left by Internet users, as well as anyone who provides assistance or services related to this procedure, can theoretically be used by judicial authorities.

Google’s query history, for example, can be used by judicial authorities to support a case or prosecution. If a person is looking for clinics in a neighboring state with different legislation or pills needed for a medical abortion, this data can be obtained by the courts, both by seizing phones and computers – as it has already been, at least in one case.

Geolocation data, which is collected not only by Google and Apple, but also by mobile operators, is also very sensitive. If some states seek to ban trips to a clinic in a neighboring territory for an abortion and hold accountable anyone who undertakes this trip, geolocation data will be crucial.

Finally, menstrual cycle tracking apps, whose data is extremely sensitive, are at the forefront. The Flo app recently announced the upcoming launch of «anonymous mode», which erases all credentials from an account. For its part, Clue also issued a press release promising that all its users’ data is hosted in Europe, and that therefore the company is not obligated to respond to US court requests for its customers’ health data. Finally, the Natural Cycles application announced that it is working on a method of total data anonymization.

At the moment, the main technology players are content with confirming their position and assuring their employees that they will continue to facilitate access to abortions for those of them who need it. Thus, the management of Yelp, as well as Meta and Microsoft announced that they would create internal assistance for those who need to travel to another state to have an abortion, or indicated that such a mechanism already exists. «We are in the process of evaluating how best to do this, given the complex legal framework», – said a representative of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. For its part, Uber has promised to cover the legal costs of drivers who will be held accountable for delivering a client to an abortion clinic.

But none of the giants of Silicon Valley has spoken unequivocally on the issue of personal data collection. It is a difficult question when we know that many depend on these collections, both from the point of view of their internal functioning and from the point of view of their economic model, and that these companies, like mobile operators, have few means of protection from information requests by the courts.

Therefore, some elected officials seek to force platforms to assume their responsibilities. In May, shortly after the draft decision prepared by the Supreme Court leaked to the press, American elected officials wrote a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, warning about the risk posed to citizens by the collection of geolocation data by the digital giant.

Then, in early June, Sarah Jacobs, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, introduced a bill called «My Body, My Data». The text is aimed at additional protection of users’ personal data from the point of view of health, but cannot count on voting without the support of Republicans, as the Washington Post notes.

Along with three Democratic senators, Sarah Jacobs also appealed to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US regulatory trade body, to investigate how Google and Apple use mobile device user data, accusing the two companies of «unfair and misleading practices» that allow the collection and sale of personal data of hundreds of millions of smartphone users.

Meanwhile, mesages explaining how to cover their tracks on the Internet for people who want to learn about abortion procedures are multiplying. Information leaflets, which themselves may become illegal in the long term, The Verge website notes, certain anti-abortion activist groups, such as the National Committee on the Right to Life, campaigning for any assistance provided to someone who wants to have an abortion, are also prosecuted. In Texas, a law passed in September 2021 already allows, as the Protocol website notes, to prosecute, for example, a VTC driver who was transporting someone going for an abortion, or an association of abortion supporters collecting donations online.