After the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade on Friday, calls increased for tech companies to take a stand about the use of online data to incriminate individuals seeking or providing abortion services.
Abortion and civil rights advocates have warned that there are few federal regulations on what information is collected and retained by tech firms, making it easy for law enforcement officials to access incriminating data on location, internet searches and communication history.
Such data has already been used to prosecute people for miscarriages and pregnancy termination in states with strict abortion laws, including one case in which a woman’s online search for abortion pills was brought against her in court. This kind of legal response may now become more widespread, said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of advocacy group the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“These companies need to think very long and hard about the ways in which their platforms will be weaponized to criminalize people looking to access abortion healthcare, and they need to ensure that it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Despite these growing calls, no major tech companies as of Friday afternoon had made public statements on how they will handle such data and respond to related law enforcement requests moving forward.
Facebook and WhatsApp parent company Meta did not respond to request for comment. Ride share firms Uber and Lyft did not respond to request for comment. Google and Apple did not respond to request for comment.
Smaller companies are also being targeted with questions over their data practices, as frantic calls to delete period tracking apps went viral following the supreme court decision. Some of those companies, unlike the tech giants, have taken public stands.
“At this fraught moment, we hear the anger and the anxiety coming from our US community,” period tracking app Clue said in a statement. “We remain committed to protecting your reproductive health data.”
Digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has advised companies in the tech world to pre-emptively prepare for a future in which they are served with subpoenas and warrants seeking user data to prosecute abortion seekers and providers.
It recommends companies allow pseudonymous or anonymous access, stop behavioral tracking, and retain as little data as possible. It also advocated for end-to-end encryption by default and refrain from collecting any location information.
“The best thing to do for tech companies is to not have this data when people come knocking through subpoenas or other legal actions,” said Shirin Mori, a data privacy expert at EFF.
Experts are also encouraging individuals seeking abortions to use heightened data security practices, including encrypted communications and disabling location tracking. The Roe decision has highlighted a longstanding privacy crisis affecting users of the most commonly used tech services, said Ahmed.
“This is very clarifying the extent to which the cost for these free services is held in the data that we willingly give them, which can now be weaponized against us,” he said.
The threat of the fall of Roe, from when the decision was first leaked earlier this year, has intensified calls for federal data privacy legislation. Last week legislators including Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would would bar “data brokers from selling or transferring location data and health data”.
“Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere by selling their most private information,” Warren said in a statement at the time. “With this extremist supreme court poised to overturn Roe v Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential health care, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to protect consumers’ sensitive data.”
Johana Bhuiyan contributed reporting.