Searching for family planning on Google, a discussion with a pregnant friend on Facebook, or data from a menstrual cycle monitoring application: so many digital leads that could be used against women and their potential “accomplices” in abortion cases in some US states.
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Elected Democrats and human rights groups have urged major tech platforms to better protect personal information after the United States Supreme Court ruled on Friday to overturn federal abortion laws.
“The difference between now and the last time abortion was illegal in the United States is that we live in an era of unprecedented online surveillance,” responded Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the NGO Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Twitter.
“If tech companies don’t want their data to become a mousetrap, they need to stop collecting that data now. We’re not allowed to sell them and we’re not allowed to have them when the court orders come in,” she stressed.
Google and Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger) track their users to sell advertisers ultra-targeted and personalized ad space.
The information collected is anonymized, but remains accessible to authorities with orders. However, many conservative states have already planned to ban voluntary abortion on their soil following the Supreme Court decision.
Some laws, passed even before the Supreme Court ruled, such as in Texas in September, encourage ordinary people to sue women suspected of having an abortion or those who helped them – for example, even an Uber driver, who allegedly brought her to the clinic.
Google’s technologies are therefore in danger of becoming “tools for extremists who want to suppress people who seek reproductive health care,” wrote 42 American elected representatives in an open letter addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai at the end of May.
“Because Google stores information about the geographic location of hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it regularly shares with government agencies,” they added.
Google did not respond to several inquiries from AFP on this topic. Meta and Apple didn’t respond either.
“They have remained discreet so far,” notes Corynne McSherry, legal director of the NGO EFF.
“You can and should do a lot more to protect the privacy of all user data,” she said. “And if that undermines their economic model, it’s time to change the model.”
The association has published a list of recommendations for platforms: collect less data, encrypt it, don’t share it with dubious actors, don’t force users to authenticate, etc.
She also urges them not to give in to any demands, such as an arrest warrant, that would require information on all smartphones if they were planning a family.
But even if the companies made an effort, that would not exempt those affected from taking action themselves, the NGO admits.
She advises them to use search engines that consume less data like DuckDuckGo, encrypted messaging services like Signal or ProtonMail and even virtual private networks (VPN)… Digital tools popular with activists and journalists in authoritarian countries.
Also on TikTok and Instagram, influencers are calling for the removal of fertility or contraceptive mobile apps.
“Natural Cycles (NC) aims to create a completely anonymous experience,” said Elina Berglund Scherwitzl, co-founder of that app, on Twitter on Friday.
“The goal is to make sure that nobody – not even Natural Cycles – can identify the user,” she emphasized.
But beyond businesses and citizens, the responsibility for protecting sensitive data should rest with the authorities, elected officials remind.
“It’s not up to the individual to figure out how to erase their tracks and what apps are safe or not. It’s up to us in government to do our job,” Sara Jacobs, a Democratic MP, said in an interview with AFP on Friday.
In early June, she introduced a bill (“My Body My Data Act”) to Congress that would specifically require companies to collect only the health data strictly necessary to provide their service.
California and some US states have passed legislation in recent years to better regulate the protection of personal information online, but Congress cannot agree on a federal law.