When the draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press, many of us studying privacy for vulnerable individuals had a disturbing realization: the marginalized and vulnerable. The population whose online exposure has been the subject of our attention is likely to grow rapidly. These groups are set to include all women of child-bearing age, regardless of how secure and how privileged they may have imagined themselves to be.
In reversing the row, the anticipated decision would not only deprive women of reproductive control and physical agency as a matter of constitutional law, but it would also change their relationship with the online world. Any person in a state where abortion becomes illegal, who relies on the Internet for information, products and services related to reproductive health, will be subject to online policing.
As a researcher who studies online privacy, I’ve known for some time how Google, social media, and Internet data in general can be used for surveillance by law enforcement to cast digital dragons. could. Women would be threatened not only by what they find out about their reproductive status on social media, but also by data from their health applications, which could incriminate them if they were subpoenaed.
Who is tracked and how
The people who are most vulnerable to online privacy encroachment and the use or misuse of their data have traditionally been societies that have been seen as less deserving of protection: those without the means, power, or social standing. Surveillance directed at marginalized people not only reflects a lack of interest in protecting them, but there is also a presumption that, based on their social identities, they are more likely to commit crimes or be violated in ways that are preemptive. Policing can be justified.
Many marginalized people are women, including low-income mothers, for whom the mere act of applying for public assistance may subject them to presumption of criminal intent. These presumptions are often used to justify an invasion of their privacy. Now, with anti-abortion legislation set to be widespread and effective in Republican-controlled states if the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, all women of reproductive age in those states are likely to be subject to the same estimates.
Previously, women were only concerned that Target or Amazon would know about their pregnancy. Based on what is already known about privacy intrusions by law enforcement against marginalized people, it is likely that women will be more squarely in the crosshairs of digital forensics in the post-Ro world. For example, law enforcement agencies routinely use forensic tools to find people’s cellphones when investigating a wide range of crimes, sometimes without a search warrant.
Imagine a scenario in which a co-worker or neighbor reports someone to the authorities, which gives law enforcement officers grounds for pursuing digital evidence. That evidence may include, for example, Internet searches about abortion providers and period app data showing missed periods.
The risk is particularly acute in places that promote reward-hunting. In a state like Texas where citizens are more likely to prosecute people who help others access abortion services, anything you say or do in any context becomes relevant because access to your data There is no possible causal barrier to access.
Outside of that case, it is difficult to do full justice to all risks because context matters, and various combinations of circumstances can conspire to increase damages. There are risks to keep in mind here:
- Sharing her pregnancy information on social media.
- Internet search behavior is directly or indirectly related to your pregnancy or reproductive health, no matter what search engine you use.
- Location tracking via your phone, for example showing you’ve been to a location that may be linked to your reproductive health.
- Using apps that reveal relevant sensitive data, such as your period.
- Being overconfident in using encryption or anonymous tools.
Scholars, including my colleagues and myself, have been sounding the alarm for years, arguing that surveillance activities and a lack of privacy threaten the most vulnerable, ultimately a threat to all. This is because the number of people at risk may increase when political forces identify wider populations as threats justifying surveillance.
The lack of action on privacy vulnerabilities is partly due to a failure of imagination, which often stuns those who consider their position to be largely secure in the social and political system.
However, there is another reason for the inattention. When considering mainstream privacy obligations and requirements, the privacy and security community has been mired in debate for decades as to whether people really care about their privacy in practice, even if they value it in principle.
I would argue that the privacy paradox – the belief that people are less motivated to protect their privacy than they claim to be – is still conventional wisdom today. This approach distracts from taking action, including giving people the tools to fully evaluate their risks. The privacy paradox is arguably more a commentary on how few people understand or feel empowered to defend against what has been called surveillance capitalism.
With the general public indifferent, it is easy to assume that people generally do not want or need protection, and that all groups are at equal risk. Neither is true.
All in this together?
The silver lining is hard to talk about, but as these online risks spread to a wider population, the importance of online security will become a mainstream concern. Online safety includes being mindful of digital footprint and using anonymous browsers.
Maybe the general population, at least in states set to ban or validate abortion, will recognize that Google data may be substandard.