In May 1972, Chicago police raided a high-rise apartment where a group called the Jane Collective was offering abortion services. That was a year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision gave women the constitutional right to decide whether to have children, making abortion a criminal offense in Illinois.
Seven women were arrested, two of whom had patient names and addresses on index cards in their wallets. According to the history written by members of the collective, “Jane’s story,” The women destroyed the cards in the police car on the way to the station, tore them into small pieces, and ate some. They didn’t know what the police would do with the information, so they disposed of it.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision. Abortion will be banned or severely restricted in most of the country. But now, thanks to the digital trail left by the modern age of technology, it will be harder to hide incriminating data about pregnancy termination decisions.
When the court’s draft ruling first leaked in May and then formally ruled last week, attention was paid to these digital trajectories, particularly the information millions of women share about their menstrual cycles on period-tracking apps. The knee-jerk advice is simple and straightforward: delete them. Instantly.
“Remove those fertility apps now,” tweet Gina Neff is a sociologist and director of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. In an interview with Zoom, Dr Neff said the apps contained “robust information about reproductive options that are now a threat”.
These apps allow users to log their menstrual cycle dates and predict when they will ovulate and are most fertile. The apps can also be used as digital diaries of sexual activity, birth control methods, and conception attempts. Some women use these apps when trying to conceive, while others avoid them, and many simply wonder when their next period is coming.
Getting rid of their advice seemed to have the opposite effect. According to Data.ai, which monitors app store activity, downloads of the period-tracking app doubled in the days after Roe was toppled, compared to the average weekly downloads over the previous three months.
The big winners are Clue and a little-known astronomy-based cycle tracker, Stardust, both of which make public commitment to data protection after the Supreme Court decision. A Clue spokeswoman said the company, which is based in Europe, will not comply with U.S. law enforcement requests for user health information.
While period trackers appear to be an obvious source of information for reproductive health decisions, experts say other digital information is more likely to put women at risk. Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights attorney and technology researcher at the Ford Foundation who studies the prosecution of pregnant women accused of killing or endangering a fetus, Cataloging digital evidence she used against them in an academic paper Published in 2020.
“We should start with the types of data that are already being used to convict people,” said Ms. Conti-Cook, who worked in the New York public defender’s office. “A text message to your sister said, ‘Swear, I’m pregnant. ‘ search history for abortion pills or visit websites with abortion information. “
One of the cases highlighted by Ms. Conti-Cook is Letis Fisher, a Mississippi woman who was charged with second-degree murder after a stillbirth at her home in 2017.According to a local report, investigators downloaded the contents of her phone, including her internet search history, which she “admitted to conducting, including how to induce a miscarriage” and how to buy pregnancy termination drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol online.The case against Ms Fisher was dismissed after drawing widespread public attention fall.
In another case, in Indiana, Short message Telling a friend about taking the abortion pill later in pregnancy was used to convict Purvi Patel, who successfully appeal And a 20-year commutation for killing a fetus and neglecting a dependent.
“Those text messages, those websites visited, those Google searches are exactly the type of evidence of intent that prosecutors want to fill up the evidence bag,” Ms Conti-Cook said.
Investigators could also use smartphone location data if states pass laws preventing women from traveling to areas where abortion is legal. Information about people’s movements collected through apps on mobile phones is often sold by data brokers.
When The New York Times investigated so-called anonymized data on the market in 2018, it was able to identify a woman who had spent an hour at Planned Parenthood in Newark. In May, a reporter vice Information about cell phones brought to Planned Parenthood within a week can be purchased from a data broker for $160. (Following Vice’s report, Data Brokers said it was planned Stop selling data about visiting healthcare providers. )
In the pastanti-abortion activists have “geo-fenced” Planned Parenthood, creating a digital border around them and targeting phones entering the area with ads that direct owners to a website designed to discourage women from stopping pregnancy.
There are similar attempts to grab the attention of those who go online for abortion help. “Pregnancy Crisis Center” aims to be at the top of Google search results when people seek information on how to terminate a pregnancy.When someone clicks through to such a site, it sometimes tries to gather information about that person.
Given the myriad ways in which people’s movements, communications and internet searches are tracked digitally, the bigger problem may simply be how zealous Enforcement will take place in states that ban abortion. Those advising against using period trackers seem to fear the worst: pulling the web to search for anyone who is pregnant and then never gets pregnant again.
“It’s hard to say when and what will happen, but the possibilities are very dangerous,” Ms Conti-Cook said. “It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, which is why I’ve tried to emphasize focusing on what we’re seeing used against people. “
She added: “Google searches, websites visited, email receipts. That’s what we’re seeing.”