Supreme Court's potential Roe v. Wade ruling sparks concerns over abortion rights, data privacy

Brett Molina
USA TODAY

A leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court suggesting justices may overturn Roe v. Wade has sparked renewed concerns about tech companies and the data they keep on their users.

If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, the historic decision legalizing abortion in the U.S., states could move to make abortions illegal. Last year, Texas signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, banning them after six weeks of pregnancy. The law also allows anyone to sue any other person who performs the procedure or helps people get an abortion.

Some experts fear that those who seek abortions could be outed by tech companies to governments or law enforcement by handing over the troves of personal data they maintain upon request.

"With unintended consequences here, we're really looking at a situation where tech companies' very loose restrictions around collecting data and users' data privacy is really going to put people who are seeking abortions, or even seeking to learn more about abortions, at risk," said Mariana Ruiz Firmat, executive director at nonprofit organization Kairos, who uses the pronouns she/they. 

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A man holds a smart phone with the icons for the social networking apps Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seen on the screen in Moscow on March 23, 2018.

Why data privacy matters when it comes to abortion rights 

All users leave a digital trail or footprint when online, whether you're shopping, signing up for services with an email address, surfing the web, or using social media.

Security firm Kaspersky says digital footprints "are relatively permanent, and once the data is public – or even semi-public, as may be the case with Facebook posts – the owner has little control over how others will use it."

Ruiz Firmat said they are concerned with how tech companies "have been very loose with data and privacy of users" and urges both companies to bolster their data privacy policies and lawmakers to push legislation strengthening data security.

Groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation fear laws urging citizens to find and report people seeking abortions or helping those who do could leverage online data such as social media posts.  

"One set of concerns involves law enforcement and state actors, who may have expensive and sophisticated surveillance technology at their disposal, as well as warrants and subpoenas," said the organization.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Digital Defense Fund have created guides for people seeking abortions to help protect their privacy, such as browsing safely without tracking, private messaging and securing devices with strong passwords.

What about period tracking apps?

In response to the leaked draft opinion, several Twitter users said they were deleting their period-tracking apps, which help women monitor menstrual cycles, concerned that data could be used against them if abortion is made illegal.

In a statement to USA TODAY, popular period-tracking app Clue said it has already received messages from concerned users in the wake of the leaked opinion.

"We completely understand this anxiety, and we want to reassure you that your health data, particularly any data you track in Clue about pregnancies, pregnancy loss or abortion, is kept private and safe," said the company in its statement.

Clue also said because it's based in Europe, it's governed under the stricter General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) "to apply special protections to our users’ reproductive health data."

In a statement emailed to USA TODAY, period tracking app Flo said it does not share health data with any third party.

According to its privacy policy, Flo said it will "inform users about the grounds and legal basis for collecting and processing your personal data." If required by law, the app said it will seek user permission beforehand.

Apple offers Cycle Tracking through its Health app. According to its privacy policy, locked devices keep all health and fitness data encrypted, and Apple cannot read any health or fitness data synced to iCloud as long as the user has turned on two-factor authentication.

What data do tech companies share?

Big tech companies including Apple, Google, Meta (parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), and Microsoft regularly receive requests for user data from law enforcement and government entities.

Authorities can request a variety of data from tech companies through subpoenas, warrants or court orders.

For example, Apple's most recent transparency report for July to December 2020 shows law enforcement can request data such as serial numbers to help identify the owner of a device, credit card information, account information as well as data from an account including emails, photos, calendars, device backups and more.

According to a FAQ on Microsoft's website, authorities can seek out what they call "content" and "non-content" data. "Content" data includes items such as photos, emails or documents. "Non-content" data includes email addresses and IP addresses that can identify an individual's device.

How to keep your data private

For anyone who wants to maintain privacy more broadly when engaging online, there are several steps people can take.

Encrypted messaging. Several apps including Signal, Threema and Telegram all offer end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and recipient of messages can see the information sent.

Web browsers that don't track activity. DuckDuckGo and Brave allow users to search and navigate websites without targeted advertising or cookies.

Use caution when posting to social media. It's tempting to share bits of your life online through social media platforms, but you may be giving up more information than intended. "Even though there are social media platforms that provide some level of control over your data, people should just play it safe around what they're posting around kids, family or more private discussions," said Kurt Baumgartner, principal researcher at Kaspersky.

Turn off location sharing. Both iOS and Android devices provide options for users to shut off location data for various apps. 

Set up two-factor authentication. Any time you log in to a service with the feature turned on, it will also request a unique code sent to your smartphone as a text message or an authenticator app.

Ruiz Firmat said the discussion about Roe v. Wade is an important reminder to pay special attention to how online data is protected and shared.

"This is an opportunity for users to learn a lot more about data privacy," they said. "Read about it, learn about it before you agree to all those terms and conditions from the platform itself."

More data privacy tips

Contributing: Jessica Guynn

Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.