Our data is a curse, with or without Roe

A protest of the US Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe vs Wade, in New Orleans, on June 24, 2022. (Photos: NYTimes)
Nearly limitless harvesting of our personal information was always leading to this moment.

In the days since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, there have been gobs of published material and warnings from privacy advocates about how digital breadcrumbs might expose women seeking abortions to potential legal jeopardy.اضافة اعلان

Whatever your views about abortion, this is a moment to reflect on what we have given up to the hungry maw of America’s unfettered data collection economy.

It is almost impossible to be truly anonymous in modern American life. There is so much digital information out there about who we are, where we go, what we buy and what we are interested in that we can’t possibly control it all. This data is mostly used for more efficiently marketing shoes or doughnuts, but it rarely stops there.

And now we are seeing what happens when 21st-century digital intrusion collides with people who are worried all that information could be used against them in ways they never imagined.

Mifeprex, a medication used to end a pregnancy early — often called an abortion pill — at an abortion clinic in McAllen, Texas, April 29, 2022.

I do not want to make people unnecessarily afraid. My colleagues have reported that about half of states are expected to allow bans or other limits on abortion to take effect, but even in those states, law enforcement has been focused on medical providers, not ordinary people. My colleagues have also reported that there are no abortion bans that try to prosecute women who cross state lines to seek abortions — although states could try in the future.
It is not just digital information that we share. We speak to friends, family members and strangers.
But now that access to an abortion is no longer considered a fundamental right, it is staggering to consider the breadth and depth of the information we spill out into the void.

Credit cards and surveillance video cameras snoop on us. Sure, Google knows what we have searched for and where we have been, but so do our cellphone providers and home internet companies, as well as many apps on our phones and networks of middlemen that we have never dealt with directly. When we use apps to look up the weather forecast or to make sure our shelves are level, information might find its way to a military contractor or a data-for-hire broker.

We can take some steps to minimize the amount of data that we emit, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate it. Few federal laws regulate the collection and sale of all this information about us, although the US House of Representatives is discussing the latest of many efforts to pass a broad, national digital privacy law.

It is not just digital information that we share. We speak to friends, family members and strangers. In some cases in which the authorities seek to charge women with inducing an abortion, it may be relatives or medical providers who tip off law enforcement.

Some of you reading this article may believe that if abortion is a crime, it is fair game for digital data on people seeking abortions to be used in criminal prosecutions. Several years ago, I was a juror in a trial of a man accused of serially harassing his former girlfriend, and I felt both grateful and unsettled that there was so much digital evidence of his crimes, including his call logs, emails, online posts and other information extracted from his smartphone. (We found the man guilty of most of the charges against him.)

Inside Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion clinic in McAllen, Texas, April 29, 2022.

Authorities might use this information in ways that we agree with. But the sheer volume of information in so many hands with so few legal restrictions creates opportunities for misuse.

My colleagues have shown that data spewed by smartphones can follow the president of the US. Stalkers have tricked cellphone providers into handing over people’s personal information. Churches have mined information on people in a crisis to market to them. Some US schools have bought gear to hack into children’s phones and siphon the data. Automated license-plate scanners have made it difficult to drive anywhere without winding up in a database that law enforcement might be able to access without a warrant.

Since Roe was overturned, most large US tech companies haven’t shared publicly how they might handle potential demands from law enforcement in future abortion-related criminal cases. Companies generally cooperate with legal requests like warrants or subpoenas from US authorities, although they sometimes push back and try to negotiate how much information they hand over.

In a situation in which one company refuses to cooperate, odds are that similar digital information might be available from another company that will. (There has been some attention around the potential for period-tracking apps to blab to authorities, but there are more direct sources of similar information.)

And companies built to grab as much information as possible won’t find it simple to become data-minimizing converts, even if they want to.

Google, Facebook, and Verizon are not going to protect the right to an abortion when the US Supreme Court says no such right exists. They and a zillion other companies with a limitless appetite for our information have created the conditions in which privacy doesn’t really exist.

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