When Chandler Jones realized she was pregnant during her junior year of college, she turned to a trusted source for information and advice.
“I couldn’t imagine before the Internet, trying to navigate it,” said Jones, 26, who graduated from the Baltimore School of Law on Tuesday. “I didn’t know if hospitals did abortions. I knew Planned Parenthood did abortions, but there was no one around. So I just Googled.”
But with each search, Jones was being followed in secret — phone apps and browsers that track us as we click away, capturing even our most sensitive health data. .
online search. period apps. fitness tracker. Advice Helpline. GPS. The often obscure companies that collect our health history and geolocation data may know more about us than we know ourselves.
For now, the information is mostly used to sell us things, such as baby products targeted at pregnant women. But in the post-Roe world—if the Supreme Court upholds a 1973 decision legalizing abortion, as a draft opinion suggests it may in the coming weeks—the data will become more valuable, and Women will become more vulnerable.
Privacy experts fear that pregnancies could be surveyed and the data shared with police or sold to vigilantes.
“The value of these tools to law enforcement is how they really peek into the spirit,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, an attorney and technology fellow at the Ford Foundation. “It gives [them] The mental crap inside our heads.”
HIPAA, Hotline, Health History
The digital mark is only apparent when we leave the house, as location apps, security cameras, license plate readers and facial recognition software track our movements. The development of these technological devices has gone far beyond the laws and regulations that may govern them.
And it’s not just women who should be worried. Experts said the strategy used to monitor pregnancies could be used by life insurance companies to determine premiums, to approve bank loans and to weigh hiring decisions by employers. Can be used.
Or it can – and sometimes does – send women who experience miscarriage on their child’s birthday.
All of this is possible because HIPAA, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, protects medical files at your doctor’s office, but not information that third-party applications and technology companies collect about you. Nor does HIPAA cover health histories collected by non-medical “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are run by anti-abortion groups. This means that the information can be shared or sold with almost anyone.
Jones contacted one such facility in his Google search, before he learned that they did not offer abortions.
“The dangers of uninhibited access to Americans’ personal data have never been more clear,” said Sen. Researching birth control online, updating period-tracking apps or bringing phones to the doctor’s office can help track and control women across America. can be used to prosecute them.” Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said last week.
For a myriad of reasons, both political and philosophical, data privacy laws in the US lag far behind those adopted in Europe in 2018.
As of this month, anyone could purchase a weekly trove of data on customers at more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites nationwide, according to a recent Vice investigation that led to the removal of family planning centers from customers. Was. The “pattern” data that it sells. The files include estimated patient addresses (below the census block, from where their cellphones “sleep” at night), income brackets, time spent in the clinic, and the top places people took before their visits. and later stopped.
Although the data does not identify patients by name, experts say they can often be found together, or may be anonymous, with little evasion.
In Arkansas, a new law would require women seeking an abortion to first call a state hotline and hear about abortion options. It will cost the state about $5 million a year to operate the hotline starting next year. Critics fear it would be another way to track pregnant women by name or through identifier numbers. Other states are considering similar legislation.
Widespread surveillance capabilities worry privacy experts who fear what will happen if Roe v. Wade is reversed. The Supreme Court is expected to issue its opinion in early July.
“A lot of people, where abortion is criminalized — because they have nowhere to go — they’re going online, and every step they take can be surveyed,” Conti-Cook said.
Punish women, doctors or friends?
Women of color like Jones, along with poor women and immigrants, could face the most dire consequences if Roe collapses because they usually have less power and money to cover their tracks. They also tend to have proportionately more abortions, perhaps because they have less access to health care, birth control and, in conservative states, schools with good sex education programs.
The leaked draft suggests the Supreme Court may be ready to force states to ban or severely restrict abortion through civil or criminal penalties. More than half are ready to do so. Enemies of abortion have largely promised not to punish women themselves, but to target their providers or those who help them access services.
“The punishment is for the doctor, not the woman,” Republican State Rep. Jim Olsen of Oklahoma said last month of a new law.
But abortion advocates say it remains to be seen.
“When abortion is criminalized, pregnancy outcomes are scrutinized,” said Tara Murthy, communications director for the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, who co-authored a recent report on digital surveillance in the abortion sector. Was.
She wonders where the investigation will end. Prosecutors have already targeted women who use drugs during pregnancy, an issue Justice Clarence Thomas raised during Supreme Court arguments in the case in December.
“Any adverse pregnancy outcome can turn a pregnant person into a suspect,” Murthy said.
State limits, technical steps, personal suggestions
Some states are starting to push back, setting limits on tech devices as the fight over consumer privacy intensifies.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, through a legal settlement, barred a Boston-based advertising company from running anti-abortion smartphone ads to women inside clinics that provide abortion services, deeming it harassment. The firm also proposed using the same “geofencing” strategy to send anti-abortion messages to high school students.
In Michigan, voters amended the state constitution to prohibit police from searching anyone’s data without a warrant. And in California, home of Silicon Valley, voters passed a comprehensive digital privacy law that lets people view their data profiles and ask them to be deleted. The law took effect in 2020.
Concerns are mounting, and it has forced Apple, Google and other tech giants to take steps to rein in the sale of consumer data. This includes last year’s launch of Apple’s app tracking transparency feature, which prevents iPhone and iPad users from tracking apps.
Abortion rights activists, meanwhile, suggest that women in conservative states leave their cellphones, smartwatches and other wearable devices at home when they seek reproductive health care, or at least turn off location services. They should also closely examine the privacy policies of menstrual trackers and other health apps they use.
“There are things people can do that can help reduce their risk. Most people won’t do it because they don’t know about it or it’s inconvenient,” said Nathan, ACLU’s deputy director of speech, privacy and Fried Wesler said. technology project. “There are very few people who have the understanding to do everything.”
When Jones found herself pregnant, digital privacy was the last thing. She was in trouble. She and her partner had ambitious career goals. After several days of searching, she got an appointment for an abortion in nearby Delaware. Luckily, he had a car.
“When I was going through it, it was just survival mode,” said Jones, who participated in a march Saturday in downtown Baltimore to support abortion rights.
Plus, she said, she grew up in the Internet age, a world in which “all my information is constantly being sold.”
But news of a Supreme Court draft leak sparked discussions at his law school this month about privacy, including digital privacy in the age of Big Data.
“Actually, because I have my cell phone in my pocket, if I go to CVS, they know I went to CVS,” said the soon-to-be attorney. “I think the right to privacy is such a deep issue in America [and one] Which is being violated all the time.”
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