The decision by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the landmark 1973 ‘Roe v Wade’ verdict, which gave legal abortion access to American women, has led to online appeals asking women to get off menstrual tracking apps, and to closely watch their personal data being stored online.
Why are women, post the overturning of ‘Roe’, anxious about their digital footprint in general, and about their data with period apps in particular?
Why are women apprehensive about period tracking apps after the reversal in the court?
The overturning of ‘Roe v Wade’ has triggered fears that personal data stored with menstrual tracking apps could potentially be used for criminalisation of women seeking abortion care.
There is a growing concern that as more US states ban abortion — 14 of them already have “trigger laws” in place, outlawing termination immediately or in days to come — online activity and stored digital information could be used to prove that somebody went for an abortion procedure or even trouble those who may have experienced natural pregnancy loss.
What do legal and digital rights’ experts think?
Lay consumers are not the only ones worried. Data privacy experts and lawyers too have raised similar concerns about digital footprints being weaponised against women in abortion cases.
In a statement released after the June 24 verdict, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US-based non-profit digital rights group, said: “Those seeking, offering, or facilitating abortion access must now assume that any data they provide online or offline could be sought by law enforcement.”
In digital safety tips to those seeking abortion, it said: “We are not yet sure how companies may respond to law enforcement requests for any abortion related data, and you may not have much control over their choices.
“But you can do a lot to control who you are giving your information to, what kind of data they get, and how it might be connected to the rest of your digital life.”
Earlier, when a Supreme Court draft verdict suggesting that ‘Roe v Wade’ could be struck down was leaked last month, lawyer and activist Elizabeth C McLaughlin, in a series of tweets, warned women against the perils of their data being used against them in a post-Roe world.
“If you think that your data showing when you last menstruated isn’t of interest to those who are about to outlaw abortion, whew do I have a wakeup call for YOU….,” she tweeted, adding that location tracking information combined with “when you last menstruated and where you are seeking healthcare and you have a target on your back”.
McLaughlin had pointed out: “Prosecutors have subpoena power, and in the event that you need an abortion or you miscarry or you travel across state lines, you need to think very seriously about what is on your phone.”
EFF has also asked tech companies to minimise storage of data, stop behavioural tracking, and also notify users whenever their data is sought.
Have period tracking apps tried to address these concerns?
Two popular period trackers — Flo and Clue — were quick to react to the users’ concerns.
Clue said it was aware of “the anger and the anxiety coming from our US user community”. In a statement, it said: “We understand that many of our American users are worried that their tracked data could be used against them by US prosecutors. It is important to understand that European law protects our community’s sensitive health data.”
The Berlin-based firm reiterated that it does not sell user data to third parties. “Our business model is direct to consumer subscriptions — our users are our customers, nobody else is,” it said.
UK-headquartered Flo tweeted: “We will soon be launching an ‘Anonymous Mode’ that removes your personal identity from your Flo account, so that no one can identify you.”
However, Flo had been accused in 2019 of sharing sensitive user data with Google and Facebook despite promising to keep it private. The company had finally reached a settlement over the issue with the US’s Federal Trade Commission in June 2021.
Is the concern limited to menstrual tracking apps?
Not quite. While data with period tracking apps have more specific details, tech companies in general are worried about the possibility of being asked to share pregnancy-related data with US law enforcement agencies in the wake of the ‘Roe v Wade’ verdict.
Representatives of technology firms told Reuters privately that they feared police would seek the search history of customers, as well as geolocation and other information indicating plans to terminate a pregnancy.
“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,” Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation told Reuters.
Officially, however, tech giants like Meta, Google and Amazon have so far not addressed these concerns directly.
In a Twitter post after the verdict, Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote, “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.”
Has there been any such a case in the US in the last few years?
In 2017, an online search for abortion pills had landed a woman in jail. Latice Fisher from Mississippi was charged with second-degree murder after pregnancy loss at home.
Fisher had admitted to not being in a position to take care of another child, and her phone had shown search for abortion pills. Despite claiming that she had experienced stillbirth, at roughly 36 weeks, Fisher was criminally charged, only to be cleared three years later.
Women fear that cases like Fisher’s based on pregnancy outcomes might become more common going forward as states crack down against abortions.
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