Two Years Post-Roe: A Better Understanding of Digital Threats

Deeplinks 2024-04-18


It’s been a long two years since the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Between May 2022 when the Supreme Court accidentally leaked the draft memo and the following June when the case was decided, there was a mad scramble to figure out what the impacts would be. Besides the obvious perils of stripping away half the country’s right to reproductive healthcare, digital surveillance and mass data collection caused a flurry of concerns.

Although many activists fighting for reproductive justice had been operating under assumptions of little to no legal protections for some time, the Dobbs decision was for most a sudden and scary revelation. Everyone implicated in that moment somewhat understood the stark difference between pre-Roe 1973 and post-Roe 2022; living under the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus in human history presents a vastly different landscape of threats. Since 2022, some suspicions have been confirmed, new threats have emerged, and overall our risk assessment has grown smarter. Below, we cover the most pressing digital dangers facing people seeking reproductive care, and ways to combat them.

Digital Evidence in Abortion-Related Court Cases: Some Examples

Social Media Message Logs

A case in Nebraska resulted in a woman, Jessica Burgess, being sentenced to two years in prison for obtaining abortion pills for her teenage daughter. Prosecutors used a Facebook Messenger chat log between Jessica and her daughter as key evidence, bolstering the concerns many had raised about using such privacy-invasive tech products for sensitive communications. At the time, Facebook Messenger did not have end-to-end encryption.

In response to criticisms about Facebook’s cooperation with law enforcement that landed a mother in prison, a Meta spokesperson issued a frustratingly laconic tweet stating that “[n]othing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion.” They followed this up with a short statement reiterating that the warrants did not mention abortion at all. The lesson is clear: although companies do sometimes push back against data warrants, we have to prepare for the likelihood that they won’t.

Google: Search History & Warrants

Well before the Dobbs decision, prosecutors had already used Google Search history to indict a woman for her pregnancy outcome. In this case, it was keyword searches for misoprostol (a safe and effective abortion medication) that clinched the prosecutor’s evidence against her. Google acquiesced, as it so often has, to the warrant request.

Related to this is the ongoing and extremely complicated territory of reverse keyword and geolocation warrants. Google has promised that it would remove from user profiles all location data history related to abortion clinic sites. Researchers tested this claim and it was shown to be false, twice. Late in 2023, Google made a bigger promise: it would soon change how it stores location data to make it much more difficult–if not impossible–for Google to provide mass location data in response to a geofence warrant, a change we’ve been asking Google to implement for years. This would be a genuinely helpful measure, but we’ve been condi


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Daly Barnett

Date tagged:

04/18/2024, 17:31

Date published:

04/18/2024, 17:14