In the coming weeks, we can expect a lot of new doors to be kicked open by law enforcement and their friends in Republican-dominated state legislatures to target, investigate, intimidate and harass women and those who become pregnant (including their allies and significant others, in some cases) who may seek to terminate their pregnancies in violation of newly imposed state criminal laws and penalties inspired by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Given the ubiquity of cell and smartphone usage, one of the primary avenues of such investigative efforts will involve the acquisition of personal digital data that ties the alleged offender to facilities or other means of accessing abortion.
In particular, we can expect the passage of laws criminalizing attempts to seek abortion in those states where the procedure remains available. Despite the seemingly apparent constitutional objections to criminalizing such interstate behavior, no Republican legislator is likely to see that as an impediment. (Prior to the overruling of Roe it was commonplace for legislators to pass dubious and draconian anti-abortion laws without regard to how the courts would eventually receive them, and there is simply no reason to suspect that practice will stop now.)
Because absent the provision of abortifacients (such as mifepristone) through the mail—a procedure that will soon be prohibited by law in all states restricting abortion—one of the only means of terminating unwanted pregnancy for people living in such states will necessarily involve interstate travel. The task for law enforcement will become how best to anticipate and prevent such travel in accordance with their states’ laws, and depending on the degree of each state’s enthusiasm, the obvious way to do that is by seizing and searching the communications of the offenders and the facilities and people who assist them. As explained by the nonprofit digital civil liberty and privacy organization, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in its statement reacting to last week’s Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case, “those seeking, offering, or facilitating abortion access must now assume that any data they provide online or offline could be sought by law enforcement.”
As Daly Barnett, writing for the EFF, explains in “Digital Safety Tips: For People Seeking an Abortion,” there is no way to predict how a reproductive health clinic, for example, or a hospital, will react when receiving a government-issued subpoena or warrant for personal data on its patients, and “you may not have much control over their choices.” There are, however, ways to make access to your own personal data considerably less accessible to the intrusive efforts of either law enforcement or radicalized private citizens seeking “bounties” for providing such information to law enforcement. The EFF has an entire section of its website providing detailed information to avoid surveillance not only to pregnant people but providers as well.
Barnett’s post provides practical advice that goes well beyond generalized concepts such as reviewing privacy settings, turning off location signifiers, and using encrypted message services (all of which are very good ideas, to be clear).
According to Barnett, “the most important” action you (or someone you know) can take is to compartmentalize all of your activities relating to the goal of terminating the pregnancy. This means separating it wholly from your other online activity, “normal” browser, phone number or email. Barnett suggests one should start by using a separate browser with “hardened” privacy settings. (Barnett suggests Brave, Firefox, and DuckDuckGo.):
It's a good idea to look into the “preferences” menu of whichever browser you choose, and raise the privacy settings even further. It's also a good idea to turn off this browser's features to remember browsing history and site data/cookies.
She also provides helpful screenshots of how this can be accomplished with Firefox, for example. None of the suggestions she provides require you to be a cybersecurity expert.
If you are calling clinics or healthcare providers, consider keeping a secondary phone number like Google Voice (which is free), Hushed, or Burner (both Hushed and Burner are paid apps, but have significantly better privacy policies than Google Voice). Having a separate email address, especially one that is made with privacy and security in mind, is also a good idea. Some email services you might consider are Tutanota and Protonmail.
Another suggestion is to get a “burner” phone, one not tied to your normal cell phone number, or if that is not practical, “consider reviewing the privacy settings on your current cell phone to see what information is being collected about you, who is collecting it, and what they might do with it.”
There has been a lot written lately about period tracker apps and the potential that data from them may be seized by law enforcement to prove that someone had an abortion.
Period-tracking apps are used by tens of millions of people to help predict the onset of symptoms, track ovulation cycles, and plan for pregnancy. The tradeoff: users plug highly personal information into an app that may not be keeping their data entirely safe.
This isn’t an idle concern and Barnett acknowledges that if you must use one of these, “If you can, consider switching to a more privacy-focused app. Euki, for example, promises not to store any user information.” However as Business Insider reports, although the risk of such data being acquired by law enforcement is quite low, one of the more significant concerns is being notified by the company if such information is sought. Those companies are under no such obligation.
The EFF article also explains how to turn off Ad ID tracking on IOS and Android phones: this restricts individual apps' abilities to track your behavior when you use them, and limits their sharing of that information with others. Some of the suggestions are common sense:
For apps that require location data for their core functionality (such as Google Maps), choose an option like "While Using" that only gives the app permission to view your location when it's open (remember to fully close out of those apps when you are finished using them).
If you have a "Find My" feature turned on for your phone, like Apple's function to see where your phone is from your other computers, you will want to consider turning that off before traveling to or from a location you don't want someone else being able to see you visit.
Or even more common sense, use a paper map, with written directions, and leave your phone at home, turned off. If possible do not discuss your plans with anyone helping you via phone or text at all.
By now I know many of the more sophisticated cybersecurity experts reading this will be salivating to amend, augment, condemn or otherwise modify all of the suggestions set forth above. And that’s good, because I’ll be the first to acknowledge that like most people I’m not well-versed in this type of thing.
But neither is your average pregnant teenager, terrified of the consequences that will follow from any attempt to terminate an unwanted, economically impractical, and potentially life-altering pregnancy, or simply fearing the criminal consequences of revealing the desire to do so to the wrong person. That is the hellish situation literally hundreds of thousands of pregnant people are going to have to face, many from this very moment forward, thanks to the Republican Party and its corrupted Supreme Court.