Nearly limitless harvesting of our personal information was always leading 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 to 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’re interested in that we can’t possibly control it all. This data is mostly used for more efficiently marketing shoes or doughnuts, but it rarely stops there.
And now, we’re seeing what happens when 21st-century digital intrusion collides with people who are worried all that information could be used against them in ways they never imagined.
I don’t want to make people unnecessarily afraid. My colleagues have reported that about half of states are expected to allow bans or other limits on abortion to take effect, but even in those states, law enforcement has been focused on medical providers, not ordinary people. My colleagues have also reported that there are no abortion bans that try to prosecute women who cross state lines to seek abortions — although states could try in the future.
But now that access to an abortion is no longer considered a fundamental right, it’s staggering to consider 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’ve been, but so do our cellphone providers and home internet companies, as well as many apps on our phones and networks of middlemen 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 might find its 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, although Congress is discussing the latest of many 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 inducing an abortion, it may be relatives or medical providers who tip off law enforcement. (Here is 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 of a man accused of serially harassing his former 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 might use this information in ways that we agree with. But the sheer volume of information in so many hands with so few 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 to them. Some U.S. schools have bought 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 might be able to access without a warrant.
Since Roe was overturned, most large U.S. tech companies haven’t shared publicly how they might handle potential demands from law enforcement in future abortion-related criminal cases. Companies generally cooperate with legal requests like warrants or subpoenas from the U.S. authorities, although 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 similar digital information might be available from another company that will. (There’s been some attention around the potential for period-tracking apps to blab to the authorities, but there are more direct sources of similar information.)
And companies built to grab as much information as possible won’t 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 with a limitless appetite for our information have created the conditions in which privacy doesn’t really exist.
Related from my colleagues: Payment data could become evidence of abortion.
Before we go …
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 the human labor involved in A.I. creation: New layoffs at Tesla included staff members who labeled data for driver-assistance software. It’s worth reading my colleague Cade Metz’s article from 2019 about all the humans needed 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 May reported. (He found them later.)
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