Less than two days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, media intelligence firm Zignal Labs counted a more than a quarter of a million mentions of abortion pills across media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.
The reversal of the nearly half-century precedent protecting privacy rights and abortion access fueled widespread outrage expressed by politicians, media pundits, and activists.
Almost immediately, Facebook and Instagram began removing posts that offered abortion pills such as misoprostol and mifepristone. They also disabled accounts seeking to protect abortion access, some which were managed by Women on Web, a non-profit providing referrals for abortions and abortion pills. The group reported that the accounts they manage, which had collectively amassed 6,986 followers, were blocked without notice. “All accounts remain closed and attempts to reinstate the accounts have been unsuccessful,” they wrote in a press release.
In early July, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, sent a letter to the two social networks asking them to stop these practices. “As a result of the Court’s decision,” the letter argued, “it is more important than ever that social media platforms not censor truthful posts about abortion, particularly as people across the country turn to online communities to discuss and find information about reproductive rights.”
Internet service companies—and the Internet itself—is now a major battleground for abortion rights.
As Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Daly Barnett, author of multiple reports on digital privacy and abortion rights, tells The Progressie, “Everyone has a digital footprint, and many are now realizing how that footprint can be used against them.”
Postmodern America is a telecom-enabled—and Internet-enabled—nation. In the United States, there are more telecom subscribers—518 million subscribers to wireless, wireline, and cable services—than there are people and nearly all of them have Internet access. However, the Big Tech companies that control the leading Internet services—Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft—are largely unchecked by any federal regulation in terms of what data they collect and what they can do with it.
Now, as some states attempt to adopt a model for abortion bans that not only makes the procedure illegal, but also encourages others to sue providers, seekers, and anyone who knowingly assists a person in obtaining an abortion, personal digital data has become a high-stakes liability.
Online searches for abortion service information, abortion pills, vacuum-aspiration devices, and telehealth programs or classes could also be subject to data collection. Such data will likely be used in legal proceedings to prosecute abortion seekers and those who help them. The wheels were already in motion prior to Roe’s reversal, according to legal scholar Cynthia Conti-Cook.
“There is literally not a computer in that clinic unless I bring my laptop from home in.”
“These digital trails are already being introduced as evidence against them in criminal cases for intentionally terminating their pregnancies,” she wrote in 2020.
Popular period tracking apps, used to monitor menstruation and ovulation cycles, are another digital frontier ripe for abuse. A 2019 estimate claimed that about a third of American women use them. One tracking app, Flo, had 200 million downloads and forty-seven million subscribers. There are also a host of data “harvesting” companies that collect and reuse data from such apps. One example is Narrative, which allows users to purchase such data from popular period tracking apps like Flo and Clue.
In July, the White House warned Americans to be “really careful” when using period tracking apps. At the same time, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent inquiries to app makers Flo Health, Glow, GP International, BioWink (developer of Clue), and Digitalchemy Ventures, and high-profile data brokers, requesting information on their data collection and retention policies.
All Big Tech companies have said they will provide a subscriber’s personal data to law enforcement agencies if subpoenaed, including local police, state prosecutors, the FBI, or ICE.
Law enforcement agencies can also secure a “geofence” warrant for location tracking. Apple, for example, will honor a legal requisition if “it relates to circumstance(s) involving imminent and serious threat(s) to: 1) the life/safety of individual(s); 2) the security of a State; 3) the security of critical infrastructure/installation.”
“As long as companies continue to generate their profits off of disrespecting users’ rights to privacy, those dangers will continue,” says Barnett of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We need comprehensive privacy laws now.”
Experts recommend privacy tools for safe web use following the overturn of Roe, including:
- Safe browsers like Brave or Tor
- Secure virtual private network (VPN): Windscape and or ProtonVPN are free, ExpressVPN or NordVPN charge a fee
- Safe search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage
- Secure period tracker apps, including: Drip, Euki, Lady Cycle, or Periodical
- Encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram.
- Anonymous email addresses on platforms such as ProtonMail and Tutanota
- Browser extensions that block ads and cookies
Meanwhile, women’s health and abortion access groups are making their own tech adjustments. Gabrielle Goodrick, owner of Camelback Family Planning in Phoenix, says she is switching from communicating with patients in ways that leave an accessible digital trail—emails and Facebook groups—to phone calls and encrypted chat apps.
Mia Raven, the director of policy at Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, Alabama, operates almost exclusively using paper to ensure patient privacy.
“There is literally not a computer in that clinic,” she says, “unless I bring my laptop from home in.”
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