In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s dismantlement of Roe v. Wade, abortion advocates have been scrambling to diagnose how the risk of criminalization is rising for pregnant people, and what can be done to protect anyone who needs an abortion, even if they live in a state governed by anti-abortion forces.
Much has been written about people deleting period tracking apps, which collect data that could be used to target those seeking medication or surgical abortions. But as experts warn that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal security.
Over the last decade, abortion rights groups have had to fend off hacking attacks from opponents, which have stolen provider and patient info and shut down websites. And there are cases in which something as innocuous as a Google search has been weaponized as evidence against pregnant people: Consider the woman in Mississippi who was charged with feticide in 2017 based on a search for abortion pills online. Or the Missouri health official who admitted in 2019 that his office monitors info on Planned Parenthood patients, including their menstral cycles, to determine if anyone attempted an abortion.
“The anti-choice movement has been working toward this for decades. This is where they’ve been headed every time they talk about wanting to pass abortion bans — well, how are those bans going to be enforced? What does that look like?” says Dina Montemarano, research director for the nonprofit advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We’ve seen the levels of cruelty people are willing to stoop to, in terms of vigilante-enforced, ‘bounty-hunter’ abortion bans like that in Texas. So the current confusion and lack of clarity is a part of the anti-choice agenda. It scares folks, and [people] aren’t going to get the care they need.”
The latest war against abortion access just emphasizes how badly people need a holistic approach to combating surveillance, especially with most major tech companies staying quiet on how they will deal with, say, state subpoenas for data on abortion seekers. More than 22 states have already banned, or are preparing to ban, abortion in the wake of SCOTUS’ decision, and while these laws largely target abortion providers, it’s not a stretch to imagine how a massive swath of prospective patients could be criminalized, too.
Digital surveillance is a major piece of that puzzle, whether it’s a passive risk from third-party platforms or more pointed attempts by anti-abortion forces to observe, harvest and leverage data from people seeking abortion services. Anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers,” for one, have been caught recruiting people with the vague promise of abortion care, only to log their personal info and surveil them long-term.
Even organizations as trusted as Planned Parenthood have been criticized for major blind spots in data security, with a new Washington Post report alleging that users scheduling abortion appointments have had their IP addresses and site behavior shared with Google, Facebook and TikTok — an “absolutely shocking” revelation, according to one digital security expert. This info can be stripped and resold online by a variety of data-broker firms; last month, journalists from VICE managed to buy a week’s worth of data, comprising details on visitors to hundreds of Planned Parenthood locations, for the paltry sum of $160.
Lawmakers have broached efforts this month to slow the collection and sale of personal information by apps and websites, but the uptake is slow, especially with a lack of input from tech juggernauts like Facebook, Google and Amazon. In the meantime, experts are suggesting a variety of personal protocols to keep abortion-seekers safe. Keeping internet search histories clean is one simple piece of advice, as is deleting text messages that discuss abortion, and turning off location tracking if you’re visiting an abortion provider. Montemarano also suggests using a VPN (virtual private network), which encrypts your connection to the internet and disguises online activity.
Other organizations offer even more options to protect communications: Repro Legal Helpline, run by the abortion group If/When/How, offers to speak to people via encrypted apps like Signal and Protonmail. The group also suggests the use of the private browser Tor as a safer platform for researching self-managed abortions and other information.
The second big piece of the puzzle is that it’s not purely digital surveillance that matters — it’s also in-person surveillance, harassment from anti-abortion activists and snitching that’s led to trouble for people who are seeking abortions. “Fake health clinics are already getting extensive information on people, and while there is a digital surveillance piece to that, the fact is that any bad actor with someone’s information can just call and give a tip to law enforcement,” Montemarano says. “This is also the case with folks who are protesting outside of abortion clinics — videotaping people’s faces, license plates and getting that info out there.”
Multiple states have created systems for people to report suspected abortions, and some have even boosted financial incentives: The Texas Heartbeat Act, for one, says that residents can literally sue individuals who aided in an abortion effort for $10,000 or more. There are concerns that abusive partners or family members could use these mechanisms to criminalize and shut someone out from seeking abortion; Montemarano also notes that clinicians and doctors could be pressured to snitch on potential abortion seekers, or face legal ramifications. This is a common setup for how people end up being questioned by police and having their phones and digital footprint seized, she says.
“It shouldn’t be every person’s responsibility to learn all of these complicated ways to protect themselves while seeking care,” Montemarano adds. “We should have structures in place that are protecting them.”
It’s too soon to truly understand what threats the future holds for people in a post-Roe landscape; some experts fear that closures of abortion clinics in conservative states could lead to anti-abortion activists focusing attacks on the ones that remain, or even the re-emergence of hackers that take down providers like Planned Parenthood. But a silver lining is that none of these attacks are particularly new. Those on the front lines of providing abortion care have long observed and strategized around antagonism, be it from extremist agitators on the ground or legislation from state capitols.
There’s a challenging balance in warning people of security risks online without discouraging anyone from actually seeking abortion care, Montemarano concludes. But as experts like her figure out how to create the necessary resources to protect people, being diligent online — and on the ground — is a crucial first layer of defense.