How Big Tech data could be used to enforce abortion bans

How Big Tech data could be used to enforce abortion bans
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a Press conference at VIVA Technology, the world's rendezvous for startups and leaders. (Shutterstock/ Frederic Legrand - COMEO)
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With Roe v. Wade overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women Health Organization ruling, abortion will become illegal in a long list of Republican-controlled states — some of which may go to extremes to enforce their new statewide abortion bans.

Technologically, much has changed since 1973, when the Roe ruling was handed down; there were no smartphones, laptop computers, social media platforms or instant messaging apps in the early 1970s. And red states enforcing abortion bans after Roe will have, at their disposal, an abundance of technology that didn’t exist back when Richard Nixon was president.

The role that major tech outfits like Google, Apple and Meta/Facebook could play in the enforcement of abortion bans is the focus of an article written by Axios reporters Ina Fried and Margaret Harding McGill published June 28.

According to Fried and McGill, “When law enforcement authorities demand personal data belonging to those suspected of getting an abortion, tech firms will likely hand it over…. Companies like Google and Facebook collect enormous volumes of personal data, including information about where we've been, what we've bought, who we've talked to and what we've said. States that have made abortion a crime are making anyone who miscarries a potential target for a police data demand.”

Major tech companies, Fried and McGill note, “aren't directly answering questions about how they will respond to” data-related “inquiries now that the U.S. Supreme Court is letting states outlaw abortion.” The reporters add, however, that tech companies’ “privacy policies and past conduct” indicate that “they may contest what they view as overly broad data requests, but generally, they will cooperate with criminal investigations.”

“Period-tracking apps have drawn attention for obvious reasons, but the potentially relevant data is far wider — everything from Amazon purchase data to Google search queries, and location data from cell carriers to messaging data from e-mail and chat providers,” Fried and McGill note.

“How it works: Law enforcement already seeks access to location data, content, usernames, browser history and other online activity from tech companies through warrants or subpoenas. Now, they will seek that same information in connection with abortion investigations in states that have criminalized it, India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Axios.”

McKinney explained, “As long as the companies are collecting that data and storing that data, they're going to keep getting subpoenaed.”

Axios also interviewed Caitlin Chin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think that people may cut themselves off from access to important reproductive health information that they need because of these privacy concerns," Chin warns.

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