The new frontline in America’s abortion war is digital

Privacy rights activists say data could be used against women in states banning abortions

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As conservative states across the US enact laws banning abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, privacy experts say women’s digital footprints could soon be used against them.

Since 1973, women in America had the legal right to abortions protected under the US Constitution.

But the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v Wade upended nearly a half-century of legal precedent and has thrown the country into very uncertain times. The top court ruling means that individual states, and not the federal government, now decide if abortion will be legal or not.

Already, restrictive abortion laws have gone into effect in Republican-led states across the US, some of which do not grant exceptions even in the case of incest or rape.

In today’s world, streams of data follow nearly everyone as they go about their daily life. That smartphone or watch leaves a record of where you’ve been, who you have spoken to and what you’ve searched for online.

All of that data could be potential evidence for aggressive prosecutors in states that have banned abortions.

“It's almost impossible nowadays for people to access information or even participate in society without visible platforms," said Caitlin Chin, a fellow in the Strategic Technology Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"Unfortunately, those same digital trails can be used against people."

Ms Chin said the Supreme Court’s decision may have galvanised conservative prosecutors across the country.

It could "also create a chilling effect, where people may be scared to even obtain the necessary health information that they need just because they don't want to be prosecuted,” she told The National.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, droves of women have deleted period-tracking and fertility apps, but experts warn that isn’t enough.

“Data about a person’s reproductive health decisions can also be revealed from sources like their browser and search histories, email and text message logs, use of reproductive health apps, and other commercial products with which many users interact daily,” Alexandra Reeves Given, the chief executive for the Centre for Technology and Democracy, said.

Privacy concerns have led some of the world’s biggest technology companies to put in safeguards that will help protect certain data points.

Last week, Google said it would delete location entries at some health facilities.

“Some of the places people visit — including medical facilities like counselling centres, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centres, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others — can be particularly personal,” the tech giant said in a release.

“We’re announcing that if our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit.”

Nathan Wessler, Deputy Director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said Google should be lauded but more needed to be done.

At the state and federal level there needs to be “strong consumer privacy laws” that protect individuals and “end abusive data practices", he said.

Without big tech’s help and the necessary privacy laws, he said there was only so much women can do to protect their data from prosecutors' prying eyes.

Updated: July 11, 2022, 2:30 AM