The concern has been raised in light of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that looks set to remove legal protection for both those having abortions and the medical professionals performing them. Indeed, under some state legislation, it could even be illegal to send a text message offering help or support.
A wave of new legislation taking aim at abortion rights across the country is raising concerns about the potential use of personal data to punish people who seek information about or access to abortion services online.
In some of the most restrictive states, digital rights experts warn that people’s search histories, location data, messages and other digital information could be used by law enforcement agencies investigating or prosecuting abortion-related cases.
Concerns about the digital privacy implications of abortion restrictions come amid a movement by Republican-controlled states, including Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, in recent years to pass laws severely curtailing access to the service. And they take on additional significance following the leak Monday of the Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, which guarantees a person’s Constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before viability (usually around 24 weeks). Overturning the landmark 1973 court ruling would transform the landscape of reproductive health in America, leaving abortion policy up to individual states and potentially paving the way for more than 20 states to pass new laws restricting abortions.
The piece gives an example of how app data might be used to provide evidence for prosecutions.
For example, in states that make it a crime to help an abortion-seeker such as Texas and Oklahoma, data from women’s period-tracking or pregnancy apps could end up being subpoenaed as evidence against the person who helped them, said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book “The Fight for Privacy.” “Let’s say you got your period, stopped your period and then got your period again in a short time,” Citron said. “It’s [potential] evidence of your own criminality, or your doctor’s criminality.”
Something as basic as a text message offering to drive a friend to the airport – so that they can get an out-of-state abortion – could potentially be used as evidence for a prosecution in some states.
Some lawmakers have even put forward proposals that would effectively ban citizens from getting out-of-state abortions. Missouri state representative Elizabeth Coleman is pushing a provision that would allow citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” a Missouri resident in getting an abortion, including out of state doctors, friends who help arrange transportation or even hosting a website that “encourages or facilitates efforts” of Missouri residents to get elective abortions. And other states could follow suit.
Many experts have warned that it is impossible for the law to actually prevent abortions – it can only prevent safe abortions. History shows that those who are denied legal access to abortions will instead seek underground alternatives, which can put their life at risk.
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