Nearly unlimited collection of our personal information always led 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 breadcrumbs could expose women seeking abortions to potential legal danger.
Whatever your take on abortion, this is a time to reflect on what we’ve given up to the hungry maw of America’s rampant data-gathering economy.
It is almost impossible to be truly anonymous in modern American life. There is so much digital information about who we are, where we go, what we buy, and what we are interested in that we cannot control it all. This data is usually used to market shoes or donuts more efficiently, but it rarely ends there.
And now we see what happens when the digital intrusion of the 21st century collides with people who fear that all that information could be used against them in ways they could never have imagined.
I don’t want to scare people unnecessarily. My colleagues have reported that about half the states are expected to enact bans or other restrictions on abortion. Still, even in those states, law enforcement focuses on medical providers, not ordinary people. My colleagues have also reported that there are no abortion bans that attempt to persecute women crossing state lines to request an abortion — although states could try that in the future.
But now that access to abortion is no longer considered a fundamental right; it’s staggering to consider the breadth and depth of information we’re spreading into the void.
Credit cards and surveillance cameras are sniffing at us. Sure, Google knows what we’ve searched and where we’ve been, but so do our cell phone providers and home internet companies, as well as many apps on our phones and middleman networks that we’ve never dealt directly with. When we use apps to look up the weather forecast or ensure our shelves are level, information can find its way to a military contractor or a data-for-hire broker.
We can take some steps to minimize the amount of data we transmit, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate this data. Few federal laws regulate the collection and sale of all this information about us. However, 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 with friends, relatives, and strangers. (Here’s a handy Consumer Reports overview of when medical privacy laws protect us and when they don’t.) in some cases where authorities want to charge women for inciting abortion, it may be family members or medical providers tipping off law enforcement.
Several years ago, I was a juror in a trial of a man accused of serially harassing his ex-girlfriend, and I felt both grateful and disturbed 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 charges against him.) Some of you reading this newsletter may think that if abortion is a crime, it’s fair game to use digital data about people seeking abortion in criminal prosecutions.
The authorities may use this information in ways that we agree to. But the sheer amount of information in so many hands with so few legal restrictions creates opportunities for abuse.
My colleagues have shown that smartphone data can track the President of the United States. Stalkers have tricked cell phone providers into handing over people’s personal information. Churches have mined information about people in crisis to market them. Some U.S. schools have bought equipment to hack into children’s phones and transfer the data. Automated license plate scanners have made it difficult to drive anywhere without entering a database that law enforcement officers can access without a warrant.
Since Roe was overthrown, most major US tech companies have not publicly shared how they might deal with possible demands from law enforcement in future abortion-related criminal cases. Companies generally cooperate with legal requests such as warrants or subpoenas from the U.S. authorities, though sometimes they back down and try to negotiate how much information they hand over.
If one company refuses to cooperate, there is a good chance that similar digital information is available from another company that will. (There’s been some focus on the possibility of time-tracking apps chatting to authorities, but there are more direct sources of similar information.)
And companies built to collect as much information as possible won’t find it easy to become data-minimizing conversions, even if they wanted to.
Google, Facebook, and Verizon will not protect the right to abortion if the Supreme Court says there is no such right. They and countless other companies with a boundless appetite for our information have created conditions where privacy doesn’t exist.
Related from my colleagues: Payment details can become proof of abortion.
Before we go…
Don’t worry about the crypto bros: The cryptocurrency market is collapsing, but my colleague David Yaffe-Bellany reported that the pain of losing is far from equal. A few industry executives have come out relatively unscathed, while some amateurs have lost much of their savings.
Flashback to the human labor involved in creating A.I.: New layoffs at Tesla include employees tagging data for driver assistance software. My colleague Cade Metz’s 2019 article on all the people it takes to educate computers, including those who select images of stop signs and pedestrians on car sensors, so the software can more easily identify what it ‘sees’.
Why did someone have flash drives with so much personal information? A technician who had access to data on the entire population of a Japanese city had to work with USB sticks containing confidential information of about 460,000 people. He lost the small storage devices over a night of drinking, my colleagues Makiko Inoue and Tiffany May reported. (He found them later.)
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