In an abortion case, your phone could be used against you

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That seeking an abortion could break the law means people in states that restrict abortion must consider the trail of evidence they leave behind when they use their phones and computers as they look to obtain medical care.  What abortion access looks like in your state. Google searches, location data and communications could all be used in an abortion prosecution; they’re used every day in American courtrooms for other cases. CNN’s report about how personal data could be used to enforce anti-abortion laws outlined the lengths to which state authorities could go to enforce new laws.

This story has a version in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. Sign up here for free to receive it in your email. (CNN) As women adjust to the new reality, some of the worst predictions about an America after Roe v. Wade are coming true: Some people found it impossible to trust the account of a 10-year-old rape victim who had to be flown from Ohio to Indiana for an abortion. It is real. By the way, Indiana’s state government is in the process of taking steps to significantly restrict abortion services. Republicans in the Senate defeated legislation that would have protected women’s rights to traverse state lines for medical treatment.


  • CAHN: Increasingly, tech companies know every place we go, everything we’ve searched for online and almost every moment of how our lives are spent. It is an incredibly invasive and intimate way to reconstruct our lives, whether that’s to figure out what advertisers want to sell us or increasingly for police to try to investigate us. How could this data be used in states where abortion is illegal?

  • I talked to Albert Fox Cahn, a lawyer and founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, about what’s happening, what could conceivably happen and how laws should be changed to protect people’s data privacy. Our phone conversation, edited lightly for flow, is below. What exactly do companies know about you? WHAT MATTERS: What do companies and apps know about you, and what can they put together from that?

With abortion prosecutions, we’re not afraid of something unprecedented. We’re afraid of something that is already happening, simply accelerated, and we already see examples of pregnant people being targeted by police and prosecutors because of electronic information. We’re talking about everything on your phone. WHAT MATTERS: It seems to me like communications — text messages and phone calls — would be a bigger tool for prosecutors if they were going after somebody seeking an abortion or somebody helping facilitate one. Is that a separate issue, or is that wrapped up into this?

The fear is this information could be used in abortion prosecutions, if those start happening. How is it currently used in the justice system? CAHN: In 2022, electronic surveillance and device searches are an everyday part of American policing. Officers submit warrants to Google by the tens of thousands. … Nearly every app on our phone is collecting information that can potentially be used. And even companies like Apple, which spend millions of dollars advertising privacy protections, oftentimes are completely unable to protect their users if they get a court order.

Oh, that’s all part of a threat modeling here. When we look at the constellation of risks, some of it comes from scraping massive amounts of data from Google, from social media companies and even from Apple. But a large part of it is simply looking at the text messages we send. We continue to see people being reported to police by family, by friends, for seeking abortion services. It’s quite common in American courtrooms to see emails, text messages, even encrypted messages being read back into the transcript to be used against us.

Encrypting your communications can help reduce the risk, but you know, using the most secure platforms like Signal and also setting up messages to automatically delete is an even more effective safeguard. From your report, I learned about the importance of non-state actors. You talked about family members informing on people and activists tracking license plates. It’s not my impression that in states that ban abortion there will be an abortion police out there actively searching for this. It takes these activist groups to tee it up. Is that right? Or is that a misread?

CAHN: I think that it is both. So I think that’s correct today, but I fear that we will see designated abortion policing units in the future. Certainly during Roe, even in its waning days, we saw states relying extensively on private bounty hunters and activists to enforce abortion bans. Famously in the case of SB 8 in Texas, the state turned to private companies, because it was unconstitutional under Roe for them to engage in that sort of anti-abortion policing themselves.


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