Both technology firms and users can protect privacy

STUDIO MATERIAL. THIS IMAGE MAY BE BROUGHT OR RESPECTED. Demonstrators protesting against abortion are participating in nationwide demonstrations following the leak of a Supreme Court ruling over the possibility of reversing Rowe v. Wade’s abortion rights decision, in New York, USA, on May 14, 2022.

Caitlin Oaks Reuters

The Supreme Court’s decision Friday to repeal the right to abortion raises new questions about whether and how technology companies should protect the information of users seeking reproductive health care.

Technical companies may have to face user privacy issues related to such medical care, whether they want it or not. This may be the case if the court has ordered them to transmit certain types of data, such as information about the location of users in the abortion clinic, search history or text messages.

Even before the decision became official, lawmakers called on Google and the Federal Trade Commission to ensure data protection for online consumers seeking help in the event that Rowe’s landmark ruling against Wade is overturned. The letters came after Politico announced a draft decision that reduces protection.

The official solution puts online platforms in a difficult place. Although major technology companies have spoken out on policy issues that are in line with their values, including advocating for certain types of privacy laws and immigration reforms that would protect their workforce, entering into such a contentious issue as the right to abortion may face a significant reaction from both. parties to the debate.

Lawyers for people who have sought abortion, or who have been prosecuted after losing a pregnancy, say they have already struggled with privacy issues in states with restrictive abortion statutes.

“We’ve seen it before, but we expect technology companies to be issued subpoenas to search for people’s search history and search information,” said Dana Sasman, deputy executive director of the National Defenders of Pregnant Women, a nonprofit that provides legal protection to pregnant women. people.

“The problem is that if you build it, they will come,” said Karin McSherry, legal director of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “When you create huge databases, what you also create is a kind of reason for law enforcement to come to you, you are a third party, and have tried to get that information if they think it is useful for prosecution. “

That’s why a group of Democrats led by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and MP Anna Ash of California last month wrote to Google that it was concerned that “the current practice of collecting and storing extensive cell phone records will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists. deal with people looking for reproductive health. That’s because Google stores historical information about the whereabouts of hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it regularly shares with government agencies. “

Data privacy experts, concerned about the implications of the court ruling, say there are ways in which both technology companies and their users can try to better protect their information in the post-Row era.

The risk of digital technology in the world after Roe

Sasman pointed to two cases that could portend how prosecutors in the post-Row era would seek to use digital communications as evidence in cases criminalizing abortion.

Thousands took part in a protest against abortion in Washington, USA, on January 21, 2022.

Yasin Aztyurk | Anadolu Agency Getty Images

The first is Purvi Patel, who was sentenced in 2015 to 20 years in prison after she was accused of killing and neglecting a child after allegedly causing her own abortion. Patel told doctors at the Indiana Emergency Department that she had a miscarriage that resulted in a stillbirth. The prosecution used texts between Patel and a girlfriend that included a discussion about ordering pharmacy pills designed to induce an abortion as evidence against her.

In 2016, the Court of Appeals reduced the severity of the charges, finding that the law was not intended for use against women for their own abortions, and Patel was released from prison when her sentence was also reduced.

The second case is the case of Laitis Fisher, who in 2018 was indicted by the Mississippi Grand Jury on second-degree murder after she gave birth, like her lawyers, to a stillborn child. As evidence against her, prosecutors used Fisher’s search history, which included searching for pills to terminate a pregnancy and causing a miscarriage. The district attorney later dropped the charge.

After the protection offered by Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, another case that generally supports abortion rights, will be repealed, “we will see that existing laws will be rethought so that they apply to conduct during pregnancy,” including for pregnancy loss and self-abortion, Sasman said.

Although many of those who advocate anti-abortion laws say they should focus on providers of procedures, Sasman predicts that prosecutors will also inevitably look for those seeking services.

“I think it’s just unrealistic,” Susman said of the idea that anti-abortion laws would not target pregnant women. “And I don’t think that’s true at all, because we’ve seen it before, and also because if you create laws that establish that the fetus is a person, you’re going to criminalize the pregnant person. There’s just no doubt about that. “.

How technology platforms can protect reproductive health data

With regard to technology platforms, EFF suggested in a recent blog post that minimizing data collection and storage can best reduce the risk that this data will be investigated. The group suggests that companies reduce tracking behavior, reduce the types of data they collect to just what they need, and encrypt the default data so that it is not easy for others to read.

EFF also urges companies to abandon what it says would be an improper requirement, such as requesting search engine information for a search term such as “abortion” or geozone warrants that order data for each device in the area, e.g. abortion clinics. If they are still required to comply, companies should at least inform users about them, unless prohibited, the group said.

“I think the companies are a little silent, but I’m pretty sure they’re thinking about it,” McSherry said.

“Technology platforms play an important role here,” said Sasman, who said companies must use their vast resources to challenge court rulings on obtaining information related to abortion or pregnancy loss.

“The reality is that the prosecutor’s office has certain resources,” Susman said. “And if they think the best way to use their resources to improve the quality of life in their community is to fight to get a digital footprint of pregnant people, then they will have to spend those resources and they don’t have limitless resources. So if technology companies will be able to significantly, significantly, significantly complicate for them access to this information, it will play a big role in deterring their ability to prosecute. ”

The Meta Platforms logo appeared in Davos, Switzerland, on May 22, 2022.

Arnd Wigman Reuters

A spokesman for the parent company Facebook Meta said the company was already refusing too broad requests for information, pointing to a policy regarding government requests that said it “may reject or demand more specification of requests that seem too broad or vague.” The policy also states that Meta will inform users and advertisers when they receive such requests, unless prohibited.

While many technology companies may tend to be as politically neutral as possible, Maxherry said, “companies should always protect their users with privacy no matter what the problem is. And it’s an opportunity for them to do that.”

McSherry suggests that if technology companies don’t take steps to protect the information of users seeking an abortion, their employees are likely to push them to do more, as in other matters.

How consumers can protect their own data

Although companies minimize the collection and retention of their own data are the clearest way to reduce the risk of disclosure, experts focused on surveillance and digital rights say there are some ways consumers can reduce the risk themselves .

Maxheri said it was important to remember that “confidentiality is a community activity.” This means that consumers need to think about the privacy and security of their own devices and services, but also those of their friends, family and providers with whom they communicate.

This is because even under some existing state laws, such as Texas law, prosecutors may require warrants to obtain information from third parties who they believe could have somehow helped pregnant women have an abortion.

“Again, the responsibility for protecting oneself from unfair criminalization lies with the people who have the least resources,” Susman said. “I also just warn people not to share information with a lot of people, which, again, is also incredibly difficult when you need the support of your family, friends and community. But to keep people very attentive to who they are exchange information because not only the digital footprint will be in question, but also the people who possess the information may also be involved here one way or another ”.

EFF does not endorse specific products, but McSherry suggested several basic ways for users to increase data privacy protection.

First, use a search engine or browser that by default minimizes data collection or storage, such as DuckDuckGo, Firefox, or Brave, and use a private browsing window that will not store your search history.

Second, consumers should only transmit sensitive information through encrypted messaging services such as Signal.

EFF also suggests in a blog post about the protection of confidential information that users set up additional email addresses and phone numbers for communication with which they do not want to be too close. They point to Protonmail and Tutanota as the two email providers with robust privacy offers and Google Voice as the option to create a secondary phone number.

The group also recommends browsing the Internet in a virtual private network that can mask a computer’s IP address. It also proposes to install browser extensions that can increase privacy, disable ad IDs on mobile devices, and enable location services only when needed. EFF adds that while visiting a sensitive location, which may have heightened surveillance, it may make sense to completely turn off the device to minimize location tracking.

McSherry expects the renewed data privacy concerns that arise from a court decision could have a much greater impact on how consumers think about privacy protection more broadly.

“I don’t think most people have thought much about law enforcement so far,” McSherry said. “I think most people think, ‘Well, these warrants are probably just getting used to against the bad guys.’ … I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But that means this situation, if you can now see how it affects millions of people, I think will lead to a reset in the way people think about data privacy in general. And that, I think, can only be good. ”

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WATCH: Protesters gather near Supreme Court after document leak prompts judges to overturn Rowe v. Wade

Both technology firms and users can protect privacy

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