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Tina Casey headshot

Tech Firms Are Up to Their Necks in the Abortion Rights Tar Pit

By Tina Casey
Abortion Rights

When the conservative 6-3 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 50 years of precedent on abortion rights last month, they handed a potential gold mine to data mining firms in search of new business. After all, states that pass new abortion laws need data to enforce those laws. They need to identify, monitor and track anyone capable of carrying a pregnancy. That applies to anyone of child bearing age, regardless of whether or not they are even pregnant, let alone seeking an abortion.

Many other tech companies, though, are facing a firestorm of consequences. To cite just one example, Snapchat removed several dozens of locations from its Snap Map feature last week, after Bloomberg reported that anti-abortion “clinics” are collecting data and luring teenagers based on their use of social media.

“Google, for instance, now requires providers to note whether businesses are accredited to perform abortions or not,” added Bloomberg reporter Margi Murphy, “But the deceptive centers still remain en masse in states where women may no longer be able to find legitimate treatment.”

Murphy also cited Tara Murtha of the Women’s Law Project, who said that such deceptive centers effectively serve as data mills. They can flag people who leave a record of their visit but fail to follow through with a baby. That information can easily pass along to “overzealous prosecutors.” Murphy reported that examples of such information pass-alongs “have almost tripled in the last 12 years,” even before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case upended abortion rights.

Last week, the Washington Post also reported that there is already a pre-Dobbs history of pregnancy prosecution based on online activity, including text messages as well as online searches.

The law of unintended consequences

One major area of new concern for privacy and abortion rights is the personal data collected by a growing number of apps designed to track menstrual cycles.

Self magazine was among several publications to release a list of period tracking apps last year, under the title “The 10 Best Period Tracking Apps to Try in 2021.” Their list included Flo, Eve by Glow, Clue, Spot On (developed by Planned Parenthood), Ovia, Natural Cycles, Life and Period Tracker.

Self also suggested that smart phone users could simply use a note-taking app. However, that will not protect people whose phones are confiscated as evidence in a criminal proceeding.

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Health professionals emphasize that period apps are valuable wellness tools that can save lives by flagging early signs of an underlying health issue. In other words, they can help people protect their ability to carry a pregnancy.

Nevertheless, privacy advocates have been urging users to delete all period tracking apps on their devices.

They appear to have a case. Last month, Input magazine asked 12 popular period apps about their plans for securing user data after Dobbs. Six responded and affirmed that they were taking steps to secure their data. However, Input cited Laura Shipp, an expert in period tracking apps at Royal Holloway University of London, who advised users to “stay away from some of the biggest app providers, especially apps like Flo, who currently have a class-action lawsuit against them for sharing user data without users’ knowledge.”

“The researcher advises people use apps like Read Your Body, drip, or Pow!, all of which are what she calls ’privacy-first trackers,” Input added.

They are already coming for your contraception

Pregnancy rights advocates have already raised concerns that the ultimate aim of the anti-abortion movement is to prohibit contraception as well as abortion. In the high-tech world of data collection, that sort of prohibition would not simply track anyone who attempts to obtain a contraceptive drug or device. It would also cover anyone who uses period tracking apps in order to avoid pregnancy.

Input magazine reporter Chris Stokel-Walker touched on the issue when they included a statement from Natural Cycles CEO Raoul Scherwitzl in their article. After assuring users on privacy, Scherwitzl observed that “women have enough to be concerned about, and it’s on us to make sure they feel comfortable sharing their sensitive data with us as their trusted method of birth control.”

“Trusted method of birth control” refers to natural family planning, a pregnancy avoidance strategy based on refraining from sex during the most fertile days of the menstrual cycle. NFP existed long before apps were ever invented, but not in a form that could easily be tracked by government authorities or, for that matter, self-appointed community vigilantes.

Some religions that prohibit contraceptive drugs and devices permit NFP as a matter of doctrine. Nevertheless, permission from one’s religion will not protect people who use their period tracking app as an NFP aid. After all, if the aim is to deliberately avoid getting pregnant, there is no difference between one form of contraception and another, including abstinence.

Tech firms on the spot for speech enforcement

The Dobbs decision has unleashed a monster of epic proportions upon the tech world, and the fallout has only just begun.

Data collection is only one issue for tech firms. Selective enforcement of online speech is another. Last week, for example, Salon took note of a report that Meta had “secretly” designated the abortion rights group Jane's Revenge as a terrorist organization, “on par with drug cartels and mass murderers.” Jane’s Revenge has apparently been linked to one act of vandalism against an anti-abortion group. However, as Salon notes, Meta places fewer restrictions on at least two groups accused of playing a role in the failed insurrection of January 6, the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.

Bias aside, that policy is consistent with Meta’s apparent accommodation of ant-abortion speech, which has a history of linkage with the white supremacist movement.

“Historically, the vast majority of abortion-related violence has been carried out by anti-abortion groups against pro-choice doctors and clinics,” noted Salon reporter Jon Skolnik. “Despite this, only two names associated with anti-abortion violence reportedly appear on Meta's list of Dangerous Individuals and Organizations, which was obtained by the Intercept last October.”

The bottom line for tech companies and abortion rights

Tech companies are only fooling themselves if they think the anti-abortion movement stops at abortion. The full, invasive repression of any person with a uterus is already on the table.

A torrent of new restrictions on the movement and activities of both pregnant and potentially pregnant people is already in motion. Piecemeal, corporate-lead efforts that offer lip service to abortion rights will not be enough to stem the tide.

Tech companies and other firms that profess to stand for human rights need to take a stand and choose a side, not just in public statements but in financial aid for candidates and officeholders who support a person’s right to manage their own pregnancy as they see fit.

Tech firms and other corporate leaders need to stop pretending that the Republican party is on their side, and start acting like human rights really do matter.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey