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Online Privacy Will Be Critical If ‘roe Vs Wade’ Is Overturned

About 10 years ago, a story about Target’s uncanny ability to detect a customer’s pregnancy made waves. An angry man had gone 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 from him was already pregnant and Target had figured this out before he had.

Data mining has improved since then, but fortunately so have our tools for protecting privacy. A leaked draft ruling suggests the US Supreme Court may overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1974 decision that gave women the right to abortion. This would make online privacy more critical than ever for women and health-care providers, as secrecy over abortion would become integral not just for personal reasons but to avoid legal ramifications or blowback from vigilantes. It’s unclear who would be legally liable for an abortion in close to a dozen or more US states that may ban it. But many women would want to hide their online activity out of caution. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden warned on Tuesday that “every digital record—from web searches, to phone records and app data—will be weaponized in Republican states as a way to control women’s bodies.”

One of the first things many women in need of an abortion do is seek advice online. That won’t change. But if they happen to live in one of 22 states that would probably outlaw abortion, they’d be wise to hide their browsing history and use encrypted messaging apps 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 one study. Women may also turn to VPNs to stop mobile network providers and search engines from seeing their browsing habits. They’ll clear their web histories, use incognito windows or use 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 vs. Wade world. A tech news site reported that a location-data firm has already been selling information on visits to abortion clinics, by tracking apps on groups of phones.

The internet presents risk, but also helps, such as telemedicine services that offer abortion medication. Many women in the US have flocked to services like Aid Access to acquire such medication; the website Women on Web offers services to women around the world. Depending on the location, pills can cost about $90, versus $600 or more to get the procedure done in a clinic, prohibitively expensive for many of the women who need abortions.

Online collectives like the ‘Auntie Networks’ of Facebook will also become increasingly important. These are pages run by people offering a spare room in US states where abortion is legal, for women who need the procedure. A 2019 report in the Washington Post 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 said they’d be “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’s already being used by third parties, in this case advertisers.

In the meantime, a forthcoming law in the EU that reins in the power of large tech firms may have the unintended consequence of making people’s data in the US 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 co-exist with less-secure services like SMS. But some cryptography experts say that making these tools interoperable will break their encryption standards, which could put women seeking an abortion at greater risk.

Social-media and search platforms have for years 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.

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