the reversal of Roe v. Wade for the US Supreme Court.June 24 is a watershed moment in American politics. This ruling removes constitutional protections of the right to abortion and returns the matter to the states, whose about half should ban it.
The last time abortion was illegal in the United States was almost half a century ago… Times have changed. We now live in an era of pervasive digital surveillance, made possible by the development of the Internet and mobile phones.
However, this digital data, especially the most personal, could well be used today to identify, track, and incriminate women seeking abortions.
For the last twenty years, the big technology companies, mobile app operators, “Data brokers” or data intermediaries and online advertising companies have a comprehensive system for collecting, analyzing, and sharing vast amounts of data, often our “private” data. Companies can thus follow our every move, profile our behavior Y delve into our emotions.
Until now, this system has been used mainly to sell us things. But after last summer’s ruling, many fear personal data is now being used to monitor pregnancies and then shared with law enforcement or sold to self-styled ‘watchdogs’.
(The first drifts have been identified. The Federal Trade Commission, an independent consumer law enforcement agency of the United States government, filed a lawsuit against Kochava Inc. on August 29, 2022. The company is accused of selling geolocation data from hundreds of millions of mobile devices which, in this case, can be used to “identify consumers who have visited reproductive health clinics.”Publisher’s note.)
Data everywhere, especially
There are several data sources that could be used to identify, track and prosecute women suspected of seeking abortions.
Google, for example, regularly shares private information about its users with law enforcement, even without court order. In this case, it could be keywords used in online research that could be used as evidence by agencies that investigate or prosecute abortion-related cases.
Online surveillance can also be linked to location data. american police already uses location data mobile devices to collect evidence against suspected criminals. (Note that Google has announced that delete the location histories of its users who visit abortion providersPublisher’s note.)
Also, many mobile apps track your location and share it with data brokers. The latter then sell them to a myriad of unknown third parties, including police services. This happens even when people have stopped location data collection. This technology could be used to track women’s movements and mark when they’ve been near an abortion facility…or simply in another state where abortion is legal.
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The indiscretion of social networks
Social media activity and data collected by these sprawling platforms can also be used to deduce whether a person is pregnant…or would like an abortion.
A survey conducted this summer showed that hundreds of “crisis pregnancy centers” (mock clinics whose purpose is actually to discourage women from having abortions), located across the United States, shared information with Facebook about people who had sometimes simply consulted their website. In some cases, their name and address were available, as well as the fact that a woman would consider having an abortion.
The investigation also showed that anti-abortion organizations may have had access to some of this information. If abortion becomes a crime, this information could be used in court proceedings.
The Hard Question of Menstrual Tracking Apps
Since hundreds of millions of women use these applications to better follow your menstrual cycle, sometimes to plan a pregnancy or, on the contrary, to avoid becoming pregnant. They may also record your sexual activity or hormone treatments.
So much data that could be used to identify and track women suspected of wanting an abortion. For example, a sudden change in a cycle could be a sign of medical intervention.
In fact, while they deny it, many of these applications share unencrypted confidential information with data intermediaries and advertising companies… and this without the users being informed or consenting to it.
Ending Institutional Protections for Abortion, many are concerned that this intimate data could be used as evidence in future legal proceedings. Sometimes to the point of advising you to quit unsafe applications.
A unique moment for democracies
Following last June’s ruling, calls have been made to women in the United States to they’re not just removing their fertility and period tracking appsbut also disable location tracking on your phone, or even use “disposable phones” (prepaid phones, intended for a single use and limited in time).
However, these individual efforts, which are widely disparate, risk being ineffective or impractical to use. The digital surveillance system is too vast for us to escape easily and effectively.
Billions of web pages contain trackers that collect detailed personal data. More than 6.5 billion phones worldwide can easily be turned into sophisticated surveillance tools. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the gaze of cameras whose images can be stored in databases Y analyzed by specialized algorithms.
Worse yet, this data is collected, stored, and exchanged in ways we don’t fully understand, with minimal rules and regulations.
Privacy advocates and researchers have been warning us for years about the destructive potential of this digital surveillance device.
Critics often pointed out that this system could sustain and embolden totalitarian regimes, like the one from China. Surveillance in Western countries, such as the United States, was seen as less of a problem because it was focused on trade.
The annulment of Roe v. Wade is, however, a watershed moment because of its importance to women’s reproductive rights. It may also help define the era in another way: the existing digital surveillance system, hitherto routinely (and partly voluntarily) used, could now be seen as a tool used to criminalize citizens.
It’s not too late
Much of the existing legislation is out of step with current technologies and needs to be reformed, in the United States but not only. Australia also has questions (ME’Europe, with GDPRand the France tooeditor’s note).
What would the new rules look like? To curb digital surveillance, they should:
Strictly limit the collection, storage, sharing and cross-referencing of digital data,
Strictly regulate the use of facial recognition technologies,
Require digital platforms, websites, and mobile apps to provide users with simple, real-world opt-out options,
Require companies to offer true end-to-end encryption to protect user data.
We are at the dawn of an era where digital surveillance is being used on a massive scale against ordinary citizens. Tremendous changes are needed, not only to protect women’s reproductive choice, but also to protect everyone’s privacy and freedom from undue surveillance.
The original version of this article was été Posted in The conversationa news site dedicated to the exchange of ideas between academic experts and the general public.
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