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Online Privacy Concerns Raised after Abortion Case

FILE - Protesters line the street around the front of the Nebraska State Capitol during an abortion rights rally held on July 4, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb.
FILE - Protesters line the street around the front of the Nebraska State Capitol during an abortion rights rally held on July 4, 2022, in Lincoln, Neb.
Online Privacy Concerns Raised after Abortion Case
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A woman in the American state of Nebraska has been charged this week with helping her daughter end her pregnancy. The charges came after investigators got Facebook messages in which the two discussed using medication to end the pregnancy at about 24 weeks.

The prosecutor said it is the first time he has charged anyone for illegally ending a pregnancy after 20 weeks, a restriction Nebraska established in 2010.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Before that, American states were not permitted to enforce abortion bans until about 24 weeks. An abortion is any medical operation to end a pregnancy.

Meta, which owns Facebook, said Tuesday that Nebraska law enforcement ordered it to surrender records connected to the case on June 7. That was more than two weeks before the Supreme Court decision.

The orders, the company added, “did not mention abortion at all.” It said the orders concerned a police investigation of “the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried.”

In early June, the mother and daughter were charged with removing a body, hiding the death of a person, and false reporting. After investigators examined the private Facebook messages, a month later, government lawyers added abortion-related charges against the mother.

Lawyers representing the mother and daughter have not answered media requests for comment. The case, however, has renewed concerns about data privacy in the United States.

FILE - A man looks at his phone in front of a stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 28, 2017.
FILE - A man looks at his phone in front of a stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 28, 2017.

Tech industry response

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June, technology companies have faced increasing calls to protect the personal data that they collect from users. Many fear that law enforcement or activists could use the data, including messages, search histories, and locations, against people seeking abortions or those who try to help them.

Until this past May, anyone could buy mobile phone data of people at more than 600 Planned Parenthood sites around the country for as little as $160. A recent investigation by Vice Media said the information included where the phones “sleep” at night, time spent at the health center, and places people visited before and afterward.

In June, Democratic lawmakers asked federal agencies to investigate Apple and Google for enabling the collection and sale of their data to third parties. The following month, Google announced it will automatically remove information about users who visit abortion centers or places that could bring legal problems following the Supreme Court decision.

Privacy rights supporters say that is not enough. In the Nebraska case, for instance, neither Meta nor law enforcement would have been able to read the messages had they been encrypted the way messages on Meta’s WhatsApp service are protected by default.

“Meta must flip the switch and make end-to-end encryption a default in all private messages, including on Facebook and Instagram. Doing so will literally save pregnant people's lives,” said Caitlin Seeley George. She leads the nonprofit rights group Fight for the Future.

Governments and law enforcement can use court orders to force tech companies to surrender users’ data. But technology companies have said little about cooperating with law enforcement or government agencies trying to prosecute people seeking an abortion where it is illegal.

Meta, for example, pointed to its online transparency report, which says “we comply with government requests for user information only where we have a good-faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”

Users must help themselves

Abortion rights activists suggest that people in states where abortion is illegal should avoid creating such online data in the first place. They say people should turn off phone location services — or just leave their phones at home — when seeking reproductive health care. The experts also suggest learning the privacy policies of any health apps in use.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests using web browsers that protect privacy such as Brave, Firefox and DuckDuckGo. The organization also suggests double-checking the privacy settings on browsers and turning off tracking on mobile devices.

I'm Dan Novak.

Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on reporting from The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

prosecutor - n. government lawyer who accuses a person of a crime

encrypt - v. to change information to another form in order to hide its meaning

flip the switch - phrase, to change suddenly or to do the opposite

transparency - n. the quality that makes it possible to see or understand something

track - v. to follow and watch something or someone

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