In May 1972, Chicago police raided a high-rise apartment where a group called the Jane Collective performed abortions. It was the year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision gave women the constitutional right to decide whether they wanted to give birth, and abortion was a criminal offense in Illinois.
Seven women were arrested, including two who had the names and addresses of patients on index cards in their wallets. According to a history written by a member of the collective, “The Story of Jane,” the women destroyed the cards in the police van on the way to the station, tore them into small pieces and ate some of them. They didn’t know what the police could do with the information, so they got rid of it.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision. Abortions will be banned or severely restricted in much of the country. But now, thanks to the digital traces left in the modern technological era, it will be much harder to hide incriminating data about a decision to terminate a pregnancy.
When a draft court ruling was first leaked in May, and when the ruling became official last week, people focused on these digital traces, specifically the information millions of women share about their menstrual cycles through tracking apps. of their menstruation. The hasty advice was simple and direct: delete them all. Straight away.
“Uninstall those fertility apps now”, tweeted Gina Neff, sociologist and director of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. In an interview via Zoom, Dr. Neff said the apps “contain powerful information about reproductive choices that now pose a threat.”
These apps allow users to record their menstrual cycle dates and get predictions about when they will ovulate and be most fertile. The apps can also serve as digital diaries for sexual activity, birth control methods, and conception attempts. Some women use the apps when trying to conceive, others to avoid it and many just to know when their next period is coming.
The incentives to get rid of it seem to have had the opposite effect. According to Data.ai, which tracks activity in the app store, the number of downloads of tracking apps for a period has doubled in the days since Roe was destroyed, compared to the average weekly downloads in the previous three months.
The biggest winners were Clue and a little-known astronomy-based period tracker, Stardust, both of which made public commitments to data protection following the Supreme Court decision. A spokeswoman for Clue said the company, which is based in Europe, would not comply with requests for health information from users of US law enforcement.
While menstrual trackers seem like an obvious source of information about 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 associate at the Ford Foundation, investigated prosecutions of pregnant people accused of feticide or endangering their fetuses, and cataloged the digital evidence used against them in an academic paper that she published in 2020.
†We should start with the kinds of data that have already been used to criminalize people,” said Ms. Conti-Cook, who previously worked in a New York City Attorney General’s office. “The text to your sister saying, ‘Expletive, I’m pregnant.’ The history of searching for abortion pills or visiting websites with information about abortion.”
One of the cases Ms. Conti-Cook highlighted was that of Latice Fisher, a Mississippi woman charged with second-degree murder after a stillbirth at home in 2017. According to a local report, investigators downloaded the contents of her phone, including her Internet search history. , and she admitted to searching the Internet, including causing miscarriage, and how to buy pregnancy-terminating drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol online. After much public attention, the case against Ms. Fisher was dropped.
In another case, in Indiana, text messages to a friend about taking abortion pills late in a pregnancy were used to convict Purvi Patel, who successfully appealed and reduced a 20-year sentence for feticide and neglect of a woman. dependent.
“Those text messages, those websites visited, those Google searches are the exact type of evidence prosecutors want to fill their bag with evidence,” said Ms. Conti-Cook.
Researchers may also be able to use location data from smartphones if states pass laws banning women from traveling to areas where abortion is legal. Information about people’s movements, collected through apps on their phones, is regularly sold by data brokers.
When The New York Times examined the supposedly anonymized data on the market in 2018, it was able to identify a woman who had spent an hour at a Planned Parenthood in Newark. In May, a journalist at Vice was able to purchase information from a data broker about phones brought to Planned Parenthoods over the course of a week for as little as $160. (Following Vice’s report, the data broker said it planned to stop using it. selling data about healthcare provider visits.)
In the past, anti-abortion activists have “geofenced” Planned Parenthoods by creating a digital border around them and targeting phones entering the area with ads directing owners to a website designed to deter women from terminating their pregnancies.
There are similar attempts to get the attention of people seeking help with abortions online. “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” aim to be at the top of Google search results when people search for information about terminating a pregnancy. When someone clicks through to such a website, they will sometimes try to collect information about that person.
Given the many ways in which people’s movements, communications and Internet searches are digitally tracked, perhaps the bigger question is how diligent law enforcement will be in states with abortion bans. Those who advise against the use of menstrual trackers seem to fear the worst: dragnet-like searches for everyone who was pregnant and then gone.
“It’s hard to say what will happen where and how and when, but the possibilities are quite dangerous,” said Ms. Conti-Cook.† †It can be very easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, so I try to focus on what we’ve seen that has been used against people.”
She added: “Google searches, websites visited, email receipts. That’s what we’ve seen.”