How Digital Surveillance Threatens Reproductive Freedom
The fight against Roe v. Wade underscores how digital surveillance can be used to incriminate people seeking abortion care. But if states choose to criminalize abortion, as lawmakers in Louisiana are trying to do, it could mean that data on fertility tracking and abortion searches are open to investigation. And even without criminal laws, this publicly accessible data can be used to sue abortion providers or harass those seeking abortions.
These fears are just the latest in a growing hesitation around digital surveillance. And they’re well-founded. Consider the story of Latice Fisher, who was indicted for second-degree murder in 2017 after experiencing a pregnancy loss in Mississippi. During the investigation, prosecutors obtained Fisher’s cellphone data and found she searched for information on how to induce a miscarriage and how to buy abortion pills online. Her charges were dropped in 2020, but if convicted, she could’ve faced 40 years in prison (NBC News, Fast Company). And she’s not the only one; since 2006, over 1,300 people have been “arrested, detained, or punished for allegedly committing crimes related to their pregnancies” (National Advocates for Pregnant Women).
• Check the terms and conditions of the tracking apps that you may use to further understand how that data is stored and shared. Here’s a general overview.
• Review and share these tips for digital security when getting an abortion or helping someone else find abortion care, created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Here are additional resources for companies.
• The Repro Legal Helpline is a free, confidential helpline where you can get legal information or advice about self-managed abortion, young people’s access to abortion or judicial bypass, and referrals to local resources. Learn more and donate.
Fertility tracking apps can also be exploited since they track users’ menstrual cycles, fertility windows, or pregnancy journeys. Many apps will allow their data to be harvested and sold through data marketplaces, where anyone can sign up and purchase access to data. This data could be used to write a story about a user’s fertility and potentially incriminate them for researching or obtaining an abortion (Vice).
Your location data could also be available on a data marketplace, which can be purchased by someone who wants to identify people visiting abortion clinics. This location data could be stored in a bunch of different apps on your phone that you might not even think about, like a weather or delivery app. Earlier this month, Vice reported on a data broker selling data on who had recently visited a Planned Parenthood from “ordinary apps” installed on the person’s phone.
Search history is another form of data that can be obtained. This is particularly detrimental for self-managed medication abortions. This method is still legal, and the common drugs are not just FDA-approved but clinically proven to be safer than Tylenol (Vice). Self-managed medication abortions are currently only banned by six states but could see more restrictions with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. But it’s clear that digital surveillance would make it incredibly difficult to search and obtain these resources without being caught.
We know that digital surveillance isn’t an issue solely related to abortion access. The use (and misuse) of personal data has unjustly incriminated journalists, community organizers, and civil rights leaders (Amnesty). Bias in facial recognition software has falsely accused innocent people of committing crimes (ARD).
Last week, the Senate confirmed its fifth commissioner to the FTC, securing a Democratic slant to the commission and enabling them to move forward with a more progressive agenda, which could include keeping digital surveillance in check (CNBC).
The easiest answer to avoiding digital surveillance is not to use technology. But that’s not feasible for many people, especially when it comes to our health. Digitally-accessible abortion education and treatment is a lifeline for those living in states where abortion is challenged, and anyone who might not live near a facility or have the mode of transportation to get there. And even if you did choose to throw away your cellphone, delete all social media, disable your car’s digital dashboard, and log out of every internet account you may know, you can still be caught in surveillance – by a neighbor’s Google doorbell or surveillance camera while walking to a clinic, or even by being close to someone else’s smartphone.
What can we do? Get more informed about what we consent to when using technology, and advocate for more transparency and accountability with how our data is used.
KEY TAKEAWAYS • The fight against Roe v. Wade underscores how digital surveillance can be used to incriminate people seeking abortion care.
• Digital access to abortion care, especially self-managed medication abortions, is critical – especially for marginalized people.
• We must advocate for more transparent and progressive uses of our data by major tech companies.