The use of personal data from brokers, apps, smartphones, and browsers to identify those seeking an abortion raises new data protection and privacy risks.
The U.S. Supreme Court will almost certainly stick to its leaked draft decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion 50 years ago. According to some tallies, abortion may be banned or tightly restricted in as many as 28 states in the weeks after the Court formally hands down its decision next month.
As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has noted, “The lack of strong digital privacy protections has profound implications in the face of expanded criminalization of reproductive health care.” Enforcement of the law will likely hinge on increased digital surveillance by authorities to more efficiently identify, arrest, and prosecute pregnant people who contemplate or seek abortions. “Expanded criminalization of abortion will become an increasingly attractive target for prosecutors and police,” the ACLU says.
Lawmakers press data brokers and apps for answers
Law enforcement and other state agencies can track suspected abortion seekers using commercial services even without direct surveillance by authorities. Location data firms sell information related to clinics such as Planned Parenthood that provide reproductive health services and can even show where people visiting abortion clinics live.
Data marketplaces sell information on users who have downloaded period-tracking apps. Privacy experts are already warning people not to use period-tracking apps because of the extensive personal data they retain.
Federal lawmakers are taking note. Senate Democrats are already demanding answers from location data firms SafeGraph and Placer.ai to provide information about any collection or sales of cellphone data tied to visits to abortion clinics. “Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, your company’s sale of such data—to virtually anyone with a credit card—poses serious dangers for all women seeking access to abortion services,” the senators reportedly wrote to SafeGraph, with similar wording in a letter to Placer.
Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA), who has introduced several pieces of privacy legislation, said, “It’s important that people are aware of the information that’s out there that isn’t protected today, and what the risks are to consumers and, in particular, the huge concerns and risks that would be in place for women if the Supreme Court moves forward and we don’t protect their personal information.”
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