In May 1972, the Chicago Police raided a high-rise apartment where a group called the Jane Collective was providing abortions. It was the year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade’s decision gave women the constitutional right to decide whether to give birth, and abortion was a criminal offense in Illinois.
Seven women were arrested, including two who had names and addresses of patients on index cards in their purses. According to a history written by a member of the collective, “The Story of Jane,” the women destroyed the cards in the police van on the way to the station, tearing them into small pieces and eating some of them. They didn’t know what the police might do with the information, so they got rid of it.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court has overturned the Roe decision. Abortions will be banned or seriously limited in much of the country. But now, thanks to the digital trails left behind in the modern technological age, it will be far harder to hide incriminating data about a decision to end a pregnancy.
When a draft of the court’s decision was first leaked in May, and then when the ruling became official last week, people focused on these digital trails, sharing information that millions of women share about their menstrual cycles on period tracker apps. The knee-jerk advice was simple and direct: Delete them all. Immediately.
“Delete those fertility apps now,” tweeted Gina Neff, a sociologist and director of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. In an interview over Zoom, Dr. Neff said the apps contained “powerful information about reproductive choices that is a threat right now.”
These apps allow users to record the dates of their menstrual cycles and get predictions about when they are ovulating and most fertile. The apps can also serve as digital diaries for sexual activity, birth control methods and conception efforts. Some women use the apps when they are trying to get pregnant, others avoid it and many just know when their next period is coming.
The exhortations to get rid of them seem to have the opposite effect. According to Data.ai, which monitors app store activity, the downloads of periodic tracking apps doubled in the days since Roe was overturned, compared with average weekly downloads in the past three months.
The biggest gainers were Clue and a little-known astronomy-based period tracker, Stardust, both of whom made public commitments to protect data after the Supreme Court’s decision. A spokeswoman for Clue said the company, which is based in Europe, would not comply with requests for users’ health information from US law enforcement.
While period trackers seem like an obvious source of information about reproductive health decisions, experts say other digital information is more likely to put women at risk. Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights lawyer and technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, researched prosecutions of vulnerable people accused of feticide or endangering their fetuses, cataloging digital evidence used against them in an academic paper she published in 2020.
“We should start with the types of data that have already been used to criminalize people, “said Ms. Conti-Cook, who worked on a public defenders’ office in New York. “The text to your sister that says, ‘Expletive, I’m pregnant.’ The search history for abortion pills or the visitation websites that have information about abortion. “
One of the cases Ms. Conti-Cook revealed that Latice Fisher, a Mississippi woman who was charged with second-degree murder at a stillbirth home in 2017. According to a local report, investigators downloaded the contents of her phone, including her internet search history, and She’s “admitted to conducting internet searches, including how to induce a miscarriage” and how to buy pregnancy-terminating drugs like mifepristone and misoprostol online. After significant public attention, the case against Ms. Fisher was dropped.
In another case, in Indiana, text messages to a friend about abortion pills were later used to convict Purvi Patel, who successfully appealed and reduced a 20-year-sentence for feticide and neglect of a dependent.
“Those text messages, those websites visited, those Google searches are the exact type of evidence that prosecutors want to fill in their bag of evidence,” Ms. Conti-Cook said.
Investigators may also use smartphone location data if states pass laws forbidding women to travel to areas where abortion is legal. Information about people’s movements, collected via apps on their phones, is regularly sold by data brokers.
When The New York Times investigated supposedly anonymized data in the market in 2018, it was able to identify a woman who had spent an hour at Planned Parenthood in Newark. In May, a journalist at the vice president was able to buy information from a data broker about phones that had been planned for Parenthoods over the course of a week for just $ 160. (After the Vice President’s report, the data broker said it planned to sell cease sales data to the health provider.)
In the past, anti-abortion activists have “geofenced” Planned Parenthoods, creating a digital border around them and targeting phones that enter ads directing owners to a website meant to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies.
There are similar attempts to capture the attention of people who go online to seek help with abortions. “Pregnancy crisis centers” aim at the top of Google search results when people seek information about how to end a pregnancy. When someone clicks through to such a website, it will sometimes try to collect information about the person.
Given the many ways in which people’s movements, communications and Internet searches are digitally tracked, the bigger question may be just how zealous law enforcement will be in abortion with states. Those advising against the use of period trackers appear to fear the worst: dragnet-style searches for anyone who was pregnant and then ceased to be.
“It’s hard to say where and how and when, but the possibilities are pretty perilous,” Ms. Conti-Cook saidGeneral Chat Chat Lounge “It can be very easy to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities, which is why I try to emphasize focusing on what we have seen used against people. “
She added: “Google searches, websites visited, email receipts. That ‘s what we’ve seen. “