Caught in Dilemma, will US Tech Companies Share Data for Prosecuting Abortions?

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The US tech industry is undergoing one of the most uncomfortable times of its history. The calls for tech companies to take a stand against the use of online data for accusing people seeking or providing abortion services have increased after the recent US Supreme Court Roe v Wade precedent that for decades guaranteed a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. 

Advocates, as well as activists, have expressed their concerns against federal restrictions on the data that tech companies are allowed to derive and store. This, as a result, allowed law enforcement to access potentially incriminating information about a person’s whereabouts, internet searches as well as communication history. In a statement, Senator Elizabeth Warren said: “We have got to shut down this notion of tracking women’s health histories, tracking women’s locational data, so that extremist states can track these women and prosecute them for making their own medical decision.” 

The 24th June Verdict 

On 24.06.22, the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion. The decision was highly condemned by President Joe Biden as it will drastically change the lives of millions of women in America and exacerbate growing tensions in a deeply polarized country.  

In a 6-3 ruling powered by its conservative majority, the court upheld a Republican-backed Mississippi law which bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The vote was 5-4 to overturn Roe. Meanwhile, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts separately wrote, saying he would have upheld the Mississippi law without taking the additional step of erasing the Roe precedent altogether.  

Apprehensions over Obtaining Data 

With state laws limiting abortion kicking in after the ruling, several technology trade representatives informed media outlets how they apprehend the police will obtain warrants for customers’ search history, geolocation and other information indicating plans to terminate a pregnancy. Prosecutors could also access the same data via a subpoena.  

The concern shows how the data collection practices of companies like Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc and Inc have the potential to incriminate abortion-seekers for state laws that many in Silicon Valley oppose. 

According to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, “It is very likely that there’s going to be requests made to those tech companies for information related to search histories, to websites visited.” 

Are Tech Companies Leaking Sensitive Information? 

The major concern is such data, especially in states with stringent abortion restrictions, has reportedly been used to prosecute people for miscarriages and pregnancy terminations. For a long time, technology has gathered (and revealed) sensitive pregnancy-related information about consumers. In 2015, abortion opponents targeted ads saying ‘Pregnancy Help’ and ‘You Have Choices’ to individuals entering reproductive health clinics, using so-called geofencing technology to identify smartphones in the area. 

In a recent case, Mississippi prosecutors charged a mother with second-degree murder after her smartphone revealed her search for abortion drugs during her third trimester. Although suspects can unwittingly hand over their phones and volunteer information used to prosecute them, investigators may well turn to tech companies in the absence of leads or evidence.  

For example, in US v. Chatrie, police obtained a warrant for Google location data that led them to Okello Chatrie in an investigation of a 2019 bank robbery. Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said on Twitter, “The difference between now and the last time that abortion was illegal in the United States is that we live in an era of unprecedented digital surveillance.” 

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