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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Explainer: Data privacy concerns emerge after Roe’s decision

by Barbara Ortutay

Abortion will now or soon be illegal in more than a dozen states and severely banned in many more, with Big Tech companies that collect personal details of their users needing new measures to limit that tracking and surveillance. Facing call. One fear is that law enforcement or vigilantes against people looking for ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies could use those data troves.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that whenever people’s personal data is tracked and stored, there is always a risk that it could be misused or misused. Wade in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion, collected location data, text messages, search history, email and the use of seemingly spontaneous periods and ovulation-tracking apps to cause abortions. It can be done to prosecute people seeking — or seeking medical care for — abortions — as well as those who assist them.

“In the digital age, this decision opens the door for law enforcement and private bounty hunters seeking large amounts of personal data from ordinary Americans,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. Digital rights non-profit.

it’s already happening

According to a recent Vice investigation, as of last May, anyone could purchase a weekly trove of data on customers at more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites nationwide for $160. The files included estimated patient addresses — from where their cellphones “sleep” at night — income brackets, time spent in the clinic, and the top places people visited before and after.

All of this is possible because federal law — specifically, HIPAA, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — protects the privacy of medical files at your doctor’s office, but not any information that can be shared with third-party apps or tech companies. collects about you. This is also true if an app that collects your data shares it with a third party who can misuse it.

In 2017, a black woman named Lattice Fisher in Mississippi was charged with second-degree murder after seeking medical care for pregnancy loss.

“While receiving care from medical staff, she was immediately treated with suspicion of committing a crime,” civil rights attorney and Ford Foundation fellow Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in her 2020 paper, Monitoring Digital Abortion Diary. Fisher’s “narcissists’ statements, medical records, and autopsy records of her fetuses were handed over to local police to investigate whether she intentionally killed her fetus,” she wrote.

Fisher was charged with second-degree murder in 2018; If convicted, he could have been imprisoned for life. The murder charge was later dismissed. However the evidence against him included his online search history, which included questions on how to induce an abortion and how to buy abortion pills online.

“Her digital data gave prosecutors a ‘window (her) spirit’ to prove their general principle that she did not want the fetus to survive,” wrote Conti-Cook.

Fisher is not alone. In 2019, prosecutors submitted the browsing history of a young Ohio mother during a trial in which she was accused of killing and burying her newborn child. Defense lawyers for Brooke Skyler Richardson, who was eventually acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, said the child was dead.

But prosecutors argued that he killed his daughter, pointing to Richardson’s Internet search history, which included a question about “how to get rid of a child.” Later she was acquitted.

industry feedback

Technology companies have largely tried to circumvent the issue of abortion where their users are concerned. They haven’t said how they can cooperate with law enforcement or government agencies that are trying to prosecute people seeking abortions — or who are helping anyone to do so.

Last week, four Democratic lawmakers asked federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly defrauding millions of mobile phone users by enabling third parties to collect and sell their personal data.

“Individuals seeking abortion and other reproductive health care will be particularly vulnerable to the loss of privacy, including the collection and sharing of their location data,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “Data brokers are already selling, licensing and sharing the location information of people they get from abortion providers to anyone with a credit card.”

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Governments and law enforcement may subpoena companies for their users’ data. In general, Big Tech policies suggest that companies comply with abortion-related data requests unless they consider them to be overly broad. For example, Meta pointed to its online transparency report, which says, “We comply with government requests for user information where we believe the law requires us to do so.”

Online rights advocates say this is not enough.

“In this new environment, tech companies must play an important role in protecting women’s digital privacy and access to information online,” said Givens from the Center for Democracy and Technology. For example, they can strengthen and expand the use of privacy-protecting encryption; Limiting the collection, sharing and sale of information disclosing pregnancy status; And refrain from using artificial intelligence devices that can also predict which users are most likely to become pregnant.

What about period apps?

After Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, some period-tracking apps tried to reassure users that their data is safe. But it helps to read the fine print of the apps’ privacy policies.

Flow Health, the company behind the widely used period tracking app, tweeted on Friday that it will soon launch an “anonymous mode” that aims to remove personal identities from user accounts and not personal data of its users. Has promised to sell.

Clue, which also has a period tracking app, said it keeps users’ health data – especially those related to pregnancies, pregnancy loss or miscarriage – “private and secure” with data encryption. It also said it uses auditing software for regulatory compliance and removes user identities before their data is analyzed by scientific researchers working with the company.

At the same time, the company acknowledged that it employs “certain carefully selected service providers to process the data on our behalf.” For those purposes, it said, “we share as little data as possible in a secure manner as possible.” But Clue did not provide any further details.

burden on the user

Unless all of your data is securely encrypted, there is always a chance that someone, somewhere, could be accessing it. That’s why abortion rights activists suggest that those in states that have outlawed abortion should limit the creation of such data in the first place.

For example, they insist on turning off phone location services when seeking reproductive health care – or simply leaving their phone at home. To stay safe, he says, it’s a good idea to read the privacy policies of any health app you’re in use.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using more privacy-conscious web browsers such as Brave, Firefox and DuckDuckGo — but also recommends double-checking their privacy settings.

There are also ways to turn off the advertising identifier on both Apple and Android phones to prevent advertisers from being able to track you. This is generally a good idea in any case. Apple will ask you if you want to be tracked every time you download a new app. For apps you already have, tracking can be turned off manually.


Associated Press Writers Amanda Seitz and Marcy Gordon contributed to this story.

World Nation News Desk
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