In May 1972, Chicago police raided a high-rise apartment where a group called the Jane Collective was performing abortions. It was the year before the Roe v. The Supreme Court’s Wade decision gave women the constitutional right to choose whether to bear a child and made abortion a criminal offense in Illinois.
Seven women were arrested, including two who had patients’ names and addresses on index cards in their purses. According to a story written by a member of the collective, “The story of Jane‘ the women destroyed the cards in the police car on the way to the station, tore them into small pieces and ate some of them. They didn’t know what the police could do with the information, so they got rid of it.
Fifty years later, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe decision. become abortions banned or severely restricted in much of the country. But now, thanks to the digital footprints left by the modern technological age, hiding incriminating data about a decision to terminate a pregnancy will be much more difficult.
When a draft of the court decision was first leaked in May and then the verdict became official last week, people focused on these digital traces, particularly the information millions of women are sharing about their menstrual cycles on period tracker apps. The knee-jerk advice was simple and direct: delete them all. Instantly.
“Delete these fertility apps now” tweeted Gina Neff, sociologist and director of the Minderoo Center for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. In an interview via Zoom, Dr. Neff said the apps contained “powerful information about reproductive choices that are now a threat.”
These apps allow users to record their menstrual cycle dates and get predictions on when they will ovulate and be most fertile. The apps can also serve as digital diaries for sexual activity, birth control methods, and attempts to conceive. Some women use the apps when trying to conceive, others to avoid pregnancy, and many just to know when their next period is due.
Admonitions to get rid of them seem to have had the opposite effect. According to Data.ai, which monitors app store activity, period-tracking app downloads have doubled in the days since Roe’s tipping over, compared to the average weekly downloads over the previous three months.
The biggest winners were Clue and a little-known astronomy-based period tracker, Stardust, both of which were manufactured public obligations to privacy after the Supreme Court decision. A spokeswoman for Clue said the Europe-based company would not honor requests from US law enforcement agencies for user health information.
While period trackers seem like an obvious source of information about reproductive health decisions, experts say other types of digital information put women more at risk. Cynthia Conti-Cook, a civil rights attorney and technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, researched the prosecution of pregnant women accused of fetal murder or endangering their fetuses. Cataloging the digital evidence used against them in an academic paper released in 2020.
“We should start with the types of data that have already been used to criminalize people,” said Ms. Conti-Cook, who previously worked at a public defense bureau in New York. “The text to your sister saying, ‘Expletive, I’m pregnant.’ Abortion pill search history or visits to abortion-related websites.”
One of the cases that Ms. Conti-Cook highlighted was that of Latice Fischera Mississippi woman charged with second-degree murder after giving birth at home in 2017. according to a local report, investigators downloaded the contents of her phone, including her internet search history, and she “admitted to conducting internet searches, including how to induce a miscarriage” and how to buy pregnancy-terminating drugs like mifepristone and misoprostol online. After considerable publicity, the case was brought against Ms. Fisher dropped.
In another case, in Indiana, text messages to a friend about taking abortion pills late in a pregnancy were used to condemn Purvi Patelthe successful appeals and reduced a 20-year sentence for fetus and neglect of a loved one.
“Those text messages, those websites visited, those Google searches are exactly the kind of evidence that prosecutors want to fill their evidence with,” Ms. Conti-Cook said.
Investigators could also potentially use smartphone location data when it says pass laws Ban women from traveling to areas where abortion is legal. Information about people’s movements collected via apps on their phones is regularly sold by data brokers.
As the New York Times examined In 2018, the supposedly anonymized data on the market identified a woman who spent an hour at a Planned Parenthood in Newark. In May a journalist at Vice was able to buy information from a data broker about phones carried to Planned Parenthoods over the course of a week for just $160. (According to the report by Vice, the data broker said it was planned to stop selling data about healthcare provider visits.)
In the pastAnti-abortion activists have “fenced” Planned Parenthoods by erecting a digital border around them and targeting phones that trespassed in the area with ads directing owners to a website designed to discourage women from getting pregnant to end.
There are similar attempts to grab the attention of people who go online to seek abortion help. “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” aim to be at the top of Google search results when people search for information about terminating a pregnancy. Sometimes, when someone clicks through to such a website, they are attempting to collect information about man.
Given the many ways people’s movements, communications, and Internet searches are digitally tracked, perhaps the larger question is warranted how eager Prosecutions will take place in states with abortion bans. Those who advise against using period trackers seem to fear the worst: dragnets for anyone who was pregnant and then wasn’t.
“It’s hard to say what will happen, where, how and when, but the possibilities are quite dangerous,” Ms. Conti-Cook said. “It can be very easy to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, so I’m trying to focus on what we’ve seen it used against humans.”
She added: “Google searches, websites visited, email receipts. We saw that.”