Our Data Is a Curse, With or Without Roe

Nearly limitless harvesting of our personal information was always leading up to this moment.

In the days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, there have been gobs of published material and warnings from privacy advocates about how digital bread crumbs might expose women seeking abortions to potential legal jeopardy.

Whatever your views about abortion, this is a moment to reflect on what we have given up on the hungry maw of America’s unfettered data collection economy.

It is almost impossible to be truly anonymous in modern American life. There is so much digital information out there about who we are, where we go, what we buy and what we are interested in that we cannot possibly control it all. This data is used recently for more efficiently marketing shoes or donuts, but it rarely stops there.

And now, we’re seeing what happens when people with 21st-century digital intrusion collides are worried that all that information could be used against them in ways they never imagined.

I don’t want to make people unnecessarily scared. My colleagues have reported that about half of states are expected to take effect on abortion or other limitations, but even in those states, law enforcement has been focusing on medical providers, not ordinary people. My colleagues also reported that there are no abortion bans that try to prosecute women who seek cross-state lines for abortions – though states may try in the future.

But now that access to an abortion is no longer considered a fundamental right, it should consider staggering the breadth and depth of the information we spill out into the void.

Credit cards and surveillance video cameras snoop on us. Sure, Google knows what we’ve searched for and where we have been, but so do our cellphone providers and home internet companies, as well as many apps on our phones and middlemen of networks that we’ve never dealt with directly. When we use apps to look up the weather forecast or to make sure our shelves are level, information may be found on the way to a military contractor or a data-for-hire broker.

We can take some steps to minimize the amount of data that we emit, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate it. Few federal laws regulate the collection and sale of all this information about us, though Congress is discussing many of the latest efforts to pass a broad, national digital privacy law.

It’s not just digital information that we share. We speak to friends, family members and strangers. In some cases in which the authorities seek to charge women with an abortion, it may be relatives or medical providers who tip off law enforcement. (Here’s a useful rundown from Consumer Reports on when medical privacy laws protect us and when they don’t.)

Some of you reading this newsletter may believe that if abortion is a crime, it is fair game for digital data on people seeking abortions to be used in criminal prosecutions. Several years ago, I was a juror in a trial accused of serially harassing his ex-girlfriend, and I felt both grateful and unsettled that there was so much digital evidence of his crimes, including his call logs, emails, online posts and Other information extracted from his smartphone. (We found the man guilty of most of the charges against him.)

The authorities may use this information in ways that we agree with. But the sheer volume of information in the hands of so many legal restrictions creates opportunities for misuse.

My colleagues have shown that data spewed by smartphones can follow the president of the United States. Stalkers have tricked cellphone providers into handing over people’s personal information. Churches have mined information on people in a crisis to market them. Some US schools have purchased gear to hack into children’s phones and siphon the data. Automated license-plate scanners have made it difficult to drive anywhere without winding up in a database that law enforcement may be able to access without warranty.

Since Roe was overturned, most US tech companies have not shared publicly how they can handle potential demands from law enforcement in future abortion-related criminal cases. Companies generally cooperate with legal requests like warrants or subpoenas from the US authorities, though they sometimes push back and try to negotiate how much information they hand over.

In a situation in which one company refuses to cooperate, odds are that digital information may be available from another company. (There has been some attention around the potential for period-tracking apps to blab the authorities, but there are more direct sources of similar information.)

And companies built to grab as much information as possible without having to find it simple to become data-minimizing converts, even if they want to.

Google, Facebook and Verizon are not going to protect the right to an abortion when the Supreme Court says no such right exists. They and a zillion other companies have a limitless appetite for our information created in conditions where privacy does not really exist.

Related from my colleagues: Payment data could become abortion of evidenceGeneral Chat Chat Lounge

  • Don’t worry about the crypto bros: The cryptocurrency market is cratering, but my colleague David Yaffe-Bellany reported that the pain of losses is far from equal. A small number of industry executives have emerged relatively unscathed, while some amateurs have lost a big chunk of their savings.

  • Flashback to human labor related to AI creation: New layoffs at Tesla include staff members who labeled data for driver-assistance software. It’s worth reading my colleague Cade Metz’s article from 2019 about all humans needing to teach computers, including those who select images of stop signs and pedestrians from car sensors so that software can more easily identify what it “sees.”

  • Why did anyone have flash drives with so much personal information? A technician with access to data on the entire population of a Japanese city left work with USB sticks containing confidential information of about 460,000 people. He lost the tiny storage devices during a night out drinking, my colleagues Makiko Inoue and Tiffany reported. (He found them later.)

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