Like Internet searches, texts can put you at risk after Roe v. Wade

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After the Supreme Court ruled last month to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision protecting the legal right to abortion, many people looked to the early 1970s to see what life would have been like without the long-standing precedent.

But access to abortion is very different in 2022, thanks in large part to technological innovations, including safer drugs used to induce abortions.

There are also new digital tools that can connect people with health care providers, friends, and other resources, making it much easier to find information about abortion access.

After the landmark ruling was overturned, many people are asking for the first time whether the digital tools they use could put them or their loved ones at risk. Because the US and most states lack digital privacy laws to protect consumer information, companies and consumers themselves often have to protect their privacy online.

Here’s what to know about how digital tools collect data, how prosecutors might try to use that information in abortion and pregnancy cases, and how consumers can be more careful about the data they share.

How Digital Tools Collect and Use Your Data

Digital Tools may collect your data in a variety of ways, which can usually be found in their privacy policies. These often dense legal documents will tell you what types of data the tool will collect about you (name, email address, location, etc.) and how it will be used.

Consumers can search for words like “sell” and “affiliates” to understand how and why their information may be shared with services other than the one they use directly, as The Washington Post recently suggested in a guide to these documents.

Some web pages may track your online activities using cookies or small pieces of code that help advertisers target you with information based on your past activities.

Apps on your phone may also collect location information, depending on whether you’ve allowed them to in your settings.

How to protect your information

The best way to protect any information online is to keep it to a minimum. Some providers have recently taken steps to help consumers minimize their digital footprint when it comes to protecting their reproductive health.

Last week, Google said it would work to quickly remove location information from users who visit abortion clinics or other medical sites. It will also make it easier for users to delete multiple menstrual data logs from the Fitbit app.

Period tracking app Flo recently added an anonymous mode that allows users to record their menstrual cycles without revealing their names or contact information.

But to a large extent, consumers still need to protect their own information. Here are some ways users can protect the information they share online, whether it’s health-related or not, based on advice from digital privacy experts like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Digital Defense Fund:

  • Use an encrypted messaging apps like Signal to communicate about sensitive topics and set messages to delete themselves after a set period of time. This means that other members of your network can also use the same application.

Enabling disappearing messages in an encrypted messaging app like Signal can help protect your conversations.

Lauren Finer | Screenshot

  • Turn off or restrict location services on your phone only for the apps you need while using them.
  • When you visit a confidential site, consider turning off your phone or leaving it at home.
  • When searching the Internet for sensitive topics, use a search engine and browser that minimizes data collectionlike DuckDuckGo, Firefox or Brave.
  • Use a private browsing tab therefore, your site history will not be automatically saved.
  • Use a virtual private network to hide your device’s IP address.
  • Disable Mobile Advertising ID which may be used by third-party marketers to track and profile you. EFF has step-by-step instructions on how to do this on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

Turn off app tracking on iOS for extra privacy.

Lauren Finer | Screenshot

  • Adjust a secondary email address and phone numberlike through Google Voice, for sensitive topics.

How the data can be used in court

The risks of using digital tools by prosecutors in cases involving abortion or pregnancy loss are not theoretical.

In at least two high-profile cases in recent years, prosecutors have pointed to Internet searches for abortion pills and digital messages between loved ones to illustrate the intent of women accused of harming babies they claimed to have miscarried.

These cases show that even tools that are not directly related to reproductive health, such as period tracking apps, can become evidence in cases of abortion or pregnancy loss.

It’s also important to be aware that law enforcement agencies may try to obtain your information without accessing your devices. Prosecutors can seek subpoenas for companies you use or loved ones you’ve communicated with to learn about your digital whereabouts if they become the subject of a lawsuit.

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WATCH: Tech companies and CEOs weigh in on Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade

Like Internet searches, texts can put you at risk after Roe v. Wade

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