Looking for abortion pills? Here’s How Google Could Search History Against You

Another woman visits a friend suspected of performing illegal abortions. Police find the woman through a ‘geofence’ warrant which collects data on smartphone users who were near the friend.

Such scenarios might sound like dystopian fiction, but they could soon become commonplace, say abortion activists and privacy advocates.

Following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, pressure is mounting for Silicon Valley companies to change the way they collect and store sensitive information, amid fears that people’s online activities could expose them to lawsuits in states where abortion is prohibited.

“The looming threat of anti-abortion surveillance will demonstrate to millions of Americans why privacy is vital to all of us,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, also known as name of STOP, in an e-mail. Cahn co-authored a report entitled “Pregnancy Panopticon, Abortion Surveillance after Roe”.

Law enforcement and prosecutors are increasingly casting digital nets, using “reverse warrants” focused on location data or search histories, even when they don’t have specific people in sight . Additionally, there are concerns that bounty hunters are using digital tools — ranging from social media posts to purchased location data — to pursue those involved in abortions, prompted by new monetary rewards in some states.

“Companies, especially tech companies, are capturing a truly absurd amount of data about people,” said Katharine Trendacosta, associate director of policy and activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, an organization in nonprofit that seeks to champion digital privacy.

A big concern, she says, is that a handful of behemoths dominate the digital landscape: Google for search; Amazon for website hosting; Google and Apple for smartphones; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok for social media.

“With so few companies having so much data, it’s all too easy for government officials to go to one place and get all this data on not just one person but many people,” he said. said Trendacosta.

Google is cited by many as particularly troubling. It tracks where each of its hundreds of millions of smartphone users go and “regularly shares (this information) with government agencies,” according to a letter sent to the company by 42 Democratic members of Congress, led by Senator Ron Wyden. from Oregon. and Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto, written May 24, in anticipation of the expected overthrow of Roe v. Wade.

“We fear that in a world where abortion may be made illegal, Google’s current practice of collecting and maintaining extensive records of cellphone location data will allow it to become a tool for extreme extremists. who seek to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care,” the lawmakers wrote, urging Google to “stop unnecessarily collecting and maintaining customer location data” from Android phones.

Google, which did not return The Chronicle’s requests for comment, said last summer that the number of “geofence” warrants it had received soared to 11,554 in 2020 from 8,396 the year previous and 982 in 2018. It did not say how often it complies with these warrants which request information about anyone who was in a specific area at certain times.

Several other big tech companies told The Chronicle in email statements that they value customer privacy, though none discussed specific changes they might make in light of the changes. abortion bans.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it reviews all government data requests and only complies when it feels it is legally required to do so. Meta said it notifies users of government requests for their data unless prohibited by law or in exceptional circumstances, such as a child at risk.

Twitter said it will “continue to assess legal requests judiciously” and maintain a “transparent approach to the data we collect, how it is used and when it is shared.”

Snap, owner of Snapchat, said: “We don’t store private messages and we don’t publicly present a timeline of anything users have ever posted,” noting that its default is to delete chats and snaps. and disable location data.

Amazon, Apple, Uber and Lyft did not respond to requests for comment.

STOP’s Cahn has a range of suggestions for how tech companies can help protect their users. To start, companies should assess the risk that the data they collect, store and share could be used for abortion lawsuits, he said.

A crucial step, he said, would be for companies to stop storing individualized location records. Google, the biggest example, should ideally delete all that data, he said, but at least it should move on to backing up non-individualized data.

Advertising companies should disable abortion profiling, he said. For example, data brokers can currently buy lists of pregnant women to target ads to them.

Then there is the immense question of responding to legal requests for information from the authorities.

“Companies should also update their terms of service to refuse to honor a subpoena for user content, requiring a full warrant,” Cahn said. “They should also commit in their terms of service to actively advocate against every mandate related to abortion. They can ultimately lose in most cases, but such resistance could deeply slow the net.

Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology researcher at the Ford Foundation who studies the potential use of technological surveillance in abortion-related lawsuits, said she was concerned about data stored on users’ own devices. Authorities can extract this information with digital forensic tools – if they have the phone. She suggests that no one willfully hand over their phone “to anyone for anything”.

“From online searches to text messages, from email receipts to location data, much of our data has the potential to be used to criminalize pregnant women,” she said in an email. “In states that criminalize abortion, individuals will experience escalating surveillance and increased reliance on digital forensic tools by these agencies and prosecutors to uncover evidence of someone’s intent when they come forward. , for example, in a public hospital to report a miscarriage”.

The examples that opened this story are not only plausible, but they echo real cases in which digital surveillance has been used to prosecute women who have suffered pregnancy loss.

“Unfortunately, this is not some nightmare scenario we imagined, but something that has happened even with Roe v. Wade on the books,” said Emma Roth, attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Two special cases:

• Mississippi’s Latice Fisher was charged with second-degree murder in 2018 after a stillbirth, in part based on her history of seeking abortive drugs. The charges were eventually dropped.

• Indiana’s Purvi Patel was convicted of feticide and criminal negligence of a child in 2015 after going to the emergency room following a miscarriage. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison based in part on text messages to a friend about ordering abortion medication. His conviction was overturned on appeal.

“These examples show that police and prosecutors are already weaponizing people’s personal data, use of technology and electronic communications to bring cases against them,” Roth said.

She expects the “weaponization of data” to become even more common “both because the rate of criminal prosecutions for pregnancy outcomes will increase dramatically and also because of the ever-expanding nature of the ‘state of surveillance and the fact that prosecutors now have new tools.

She and others suggest users are looking for ways to protect their identity and activities online, but ultimately she said tech companies need to step up, even if it means losing revenue.

“When fundamental human rights are at stake, they are more important than profits,” Roth said. “I hope companies will be able to recognize that.”

Carolyn Said is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @csaid

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