Parmy Olson column: If Roe v. Wade is overturned, online privacy becomes critical | Columnists


About 10 years ago, a story about Target Corp.’s uncanny ability to detect a customer’s pregnancy made waves. An angry man went into a Target store in Minneapolis, demanding to speak to a manager and flashing coupons that his teenage daughter had received in the mail for baby clothes and cribs. “Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” he asked.

It turned out his daughter already was pregnant. Target had figured this out before he had.

Companies’ data mining only has improved since then, but fortunately, so have our tools for protecting privacy. A leaked draft ruling reported by Politico suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that gave women the right to abortion.

This would make online privacy more critical than ever for women and health care providers. Secrecy around abortion would become integral — not just for personal reasons but to avoid potential legal ramifications or blowback from vigilantes.

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It’s unclear who would be legally liable for an abortion in close to a dozen or more U.S. states that would like to ban it. But many women will want to hide their online activity out of caution. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warned Tuesday that “every digital record — from web searches, to phone records and app data — will be weaponized in these states as a way to control women’s bodies.”

One of the first things many women do when they find themselves needing an abortion is seek advice online. That won’t change, no matter what the court rules.

But if they happen to live in one of 22 states that probably would outlaw abortion in Roe v. Wade’s absence, they’d be wise to hide their browsing history, and use encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal to talk to others about their plans. Should abortion pills also be outlawed, women may turn to the dark web to procure them — something they already do, according to a study from the University of Texas.

Women also might turn to virtual private networks to stop mobile providers and search engines from seeing their browsing habits. They’ll clear their web histories, use incognito windows or download more privacy-focused browsers like Firefox.

Such tools, normally associated with political dissidents in autocratic regimes, could become far more important for American women in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Tech news site Motherboard reported Monday that a location-data firm already has been selling information related to people’s visits to abortion clinics, including where visitors had come from and how long they stayed, by tracking apps on groups of phones.

The internet presents risk, but also help, such as telemedicine services that offer abortion medication. Many U.S. women have flocked to services like Aid Access to acquire such medication; the website “Women on Web” offers services around the world.

Depending on the location, pills can cost approximately $90, versus $600 or more to get the procedure done in a clinic. This is prohibitively expensive for many of the women who need abortions (most of whom live on or below the poverty line).

Online collectives like the “Auntie Networks” of Facebook also will become increasingly important. These are pages run by people offering a spare room in U.S. states where abortion is legal, for women who need the procedure.

A 2019 Washington Post report described how some Auntie Network pages suggested taking selfies at local landmarks as “proof” that the trip was just a vacation. One host in Iowa was “happy to mail you a birthday card,” which contained birth control, a Plan B pill or a pregnancy test.

Well-meaning as these initiatives are, this is sensitive information being hosted by a social media company that already is being used by third parties — in this case, advertisers.

In the meantime, a forthcoming European Union law that reins in the power of large technology companies might have the unintended consequence of making people’s data in the U.S. more vulnerable to surveillance. The EU’s Digital Markets Act, which will come into effect in the next few years, forces the world’s biggest digital companies to make their products compatible with those of competitors.

That means messaging apps like WhatsApp will need to coexist with less secure services like text messaging. But some cryptography experts say making these tools interoperable will break their encryption standards, which could put women seeking an abortion at greater risk.

For years, social media and search platforms have been exploited by the surveillance advertising industry. How much will they resist future government efforts to enforce abortion bans? What happens if state prosecutors order Facebook or Google to identify women who are breaking the rules?

Given the libertarian ethos of many Silicon Valley billionaire founders and the legal fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden, it’s hard to see such firms giving in to government demands to break their encryption and hand over such details. But put enough financial pressure on a business and anything can happen.

For now, encryption and online privacy tools are a sacred right for women seeking an abortion. They mustn’t turn into a luxury.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She is the author of “We Are Anonymous.”

© 2022, Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency


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