Abortion is no longer a constitutionally protected right in the United States. When the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade case on June 24, 2022, it not only allowed for U.S. states to outright ban abortion care within their borders but also opened the door for the criminalization of abortions.
Your privacy is now at risk as well.
“One of many alarming aspects…is that it jettisons the concept that the right to privacy encompasses intimate decisions about how we live our lives unless it can be proven that the ability to make these decisions was legally protected at the time the relevant provision of the Constitution was written,” Farah Diaz-Tello, the senior counsel and legal director of reproductive justice organization If/When/How previously told Mashable.
So, what should you do to protect your data in a post-Roe America?
What needs to be done
“First and foremost, it’s important that people know that it should not be our individual responsibility to safeguard all of our data online,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director for the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, in a statement to Mashable. “The companies that built the surveillance economy and the lawmakers that allowed this to happen have let us all down and must swiftly and boldly act to protect people seeking and providing abortions.”
In a public statement, Fight for the Future laid out a number of legislative actions the federal government could take in order to protect digital privacy rights. The digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has called for the passing of Rep. Sara Jacob’s “My Body, My Data” Act, which would create a “new national standard to protect personal reproductive health data,” and would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Fight for the Future and the EFF have both called on tech companies to protect their users by ending the practice of collecting and storing such personal health data.
While those are issues worth fighting for, those seeking abortion care cannot depend on the government or tech companies to protect them at this moment. There are steps that you can take to protect your data now.
By now, you’ve probably already heard the calls to delete your period tracking apps. There is no specific precedent for these apps turning over data to law enforcement. However, the concern is very real. One thing the Biden administration is already looking at is using the power of the FTC to protect users’ data. Some app makers have previously stated that they would turn over your data in the same way many other tech companies who you provide your data would do.
Disclosure: Mashable’s parent company Ziff Davis owns Everyday Health Group, a digital media company that runs two popular pregnancy and period tracking apps: BabyCenter and What To Expect. Forbes previously pointed out data tracking concerns with these apps.
Christine Mattheis, Everyday Health Group VP of Content & Brand Solutions provided the following statement to Mashable:
BabyCenter and What to Expect are among the most recognizable names in pregnancy and parenting, providing accurate, up-to-date, medically reviewed information and tools to families throughout the United States and the world. Our users trust us to guide them through every challenge they may face during this exciting, yet vulnerable period in their lives.
We honor that trust by fiercely protecting our users’ information. We have comprehensive information security and data privacy programs that we continually review and enhance. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade has brought to light valid concerns about the protection of reproductive health information. Reflecting on this change, we are reevaluating and further strengthening how we protect our users and their private data.
Supporting maternal health — and by extension, reproductive health — is core to our mission. We remain committed to guiding women and families through every stage of parenthood with care and trust.
It’s a positive step that pregnancy and period tracking apps are now taking another look at privacy and data collection policies. However, until the written terms are clear, Mashable continues to recommend that users concerned about their data privacy as it relates to abortion care should practice caution when using pregnancy and period tracking apps.
“Digital surveillance has become too vast of a problem for individuals to manage on their own,” George told us. “Folks might be concerned about their period tracking app, but it’s likely that every app on their phone is gathering some type of data (location, biometric, health) that could be sold to law enforcement.”
For example, just because you deleted your period tracking app, law enforcement may still be able to confiscate your computer or smartphone and find out what you’ve been doing online and who you’ve been messaging. They can also subpoena Google, Facebook, or any other tech company that provides a service you use and collect your abortion-related search history, messages, or social media postings.
What you can do now to protect yourself
So, just deleting your period tracker app isn’t enough. An app is just one piece of the puzzle that law enforcement could use to monitor your sensitive personal online data. The best course of action is to start being more careful about your data in general, even when you’re not talking about reproductive or abortion care-related activities.
And luckily, thanks to everyone from government and corporate whistleblowers to sex workers, there are tested apps, services, and basic internet practices that you should use and follow to protect your online privacy.
The best mainstream web browser for privacy when it comes to everyday use is Firefox. There are a number of features and options that protect users from being tracked or their web history from being logged. It’s open-source as well, so many users have poured over the code to make sure the browser does exactly what a user wants it to do.
For those who are a bit more tech-savvy, Tor Browser is another great option. Tor automatically clears your web history and cookies, which are basically small files that websites download to your computer so they can remember information about you for the next time you log in. Tor also helps obscure your IP address, which is a string of numbers that identifies a device or network on the internet. This is a great privacy measure because it will obfuscate a direct link between a user and where they went online, although the process will slow down website loading times. So, Tor may be best put to use for very specific search and browsing purposes.
VPN, or Virtual Private Network, services are another privacy tool to have in your belt in order to make sure your Internet Service Provider can’t see your web history. It also hides your IP address from the websites you visit. Mozilla, the organization behind the Firefox browser, has its own VPN service, although there are quite a few reputable providers, some of which even offer a one-time payment for lifetime usage of the service.
Need a messaging service that protects your communications? Signal is the way to go. The service uses end-to-end encryption (E2EE), which basically means your messages appear only on the sender and receiver’s devices. Signal’s servers never see your messages and that means Signal doesn’t store a copy either. Signal has also been tested before, receiving orders from law enforcement to hand over whatever data they have. All Signal was able to provide to authorities was the account creation date and the last time the user logged in.
As Sarah Morrison of Recode points out, encryption doesn’t really help if law enforcement ends up gaining access to your physical device. That’s why Signal’s disappearing messages feature also helps cement its position as the best private messaging app. The feature allows users to set an interval of time that message is available before it’s deleted from both the sender and receiver’s device.
If you’re worried about your emails, Proton is a privacy-focused E2EE email provider that does pretty much the same thing Signal does but for, well, your email too. It has long been a favorite email provider for many journalists who regularly work with whistleblowers and deal with sensitive information.
Regardless of what services you go with, always be sure to clear your cookies and web browser history when you can. Make sure your browser tabs are closed as well after visiting websites you don’t want being tracked. Also, be sure to make note of when you switch devices as well. For example, using all these services on your desktop or laptop computer will be rendered pointless if you have a robust web history and location tracking enabled on your iPhone or Android device. So be sure your privacy settings are set correctly everywhere.