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Phone Data Privacy May Become Issue in Future Abortion Cases

People who obtain abortions may decide not to share information with friends and family members, but chances are their smartphone knows. The leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion proposing to overturn Roe v. Wade raises a data privacy flash point: If abortion becomes criminal in some states, might a person’s data trail be treated as evidence? There is precedent for it, and privacy advocates say data collection could become a major liability for people seeking abortions in secret, reports the Washington Post. Phones can record communications, search histories, body health data and other information. On Tuesday, there was new evidence that commercial data brokers sell location information gathered from the phones of people who visit abortion clinics. “It is absolutely something to be concerned about — and something to learn about, hopefully before being in a crisis mode, where learning on the fly might be more difficult,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation.


A major data source is the digital surveillance economy — Facebook, Google and apps galore — in which companies track consumers to figure out how to sell to them. Such data are an easy target for subpoenas or court orders, and many tech companies do not give straight answers about what information they would be willing to hand over. Google reports that it received more than 40,000 subpoenas and search warrants in the U.S. in the first half of 2021. Crunching all that data isn’t easy, and law enforcement agencies have plenty of “lower-hanging fruit” to pursue, says Alan Butler of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Those more traditional methods include checking credit card records, collecting data from cellphone towers, and talking to friends and family members. It is tough to predict how restrictive state abortions laws would become if Roe v. Wade were overturned. No matter what happens, the possibility of mass data-collection to enforce abortion bans will hang over the heads of people seeking abortions or helping others get them, said Nikolas Guggenberger of the Yale Information Society Project. “People want to be on the safe side, so even if the law doesn’t apply to what they’re doing, it has a chilling effect,” he said.

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