How Lawmakers Are Trying to Protect Abortion Data Privacy

BBefore Roe v. Wade did not grant women the constitutional right to abortion in 1973, most abortion procedures were hidden even from close family members. Some women destroyed evidence and traveled in the early hours of the morning to cover their tracks. But with today’s advancements in technology, while it’s never been easier or safer to access home abortion, keeping it private could be much more difficult. The websites and apps people use every day leave a digital footprint that’s nearly impossible to hide.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24 shone a spotlight on the issue of digital surveillance, as Google searches, location information, period-tracking apps and other personal digital data could be collected and used as evidence of a crime. if you seek to terminate a pregnancy – or help someone to do so – in states where it is illegal. The prevalence of abortion pills, which allow people to terminate their pregnancies at home, raises new privacy concerns, as most patients have to order the pills over the internet or go to a telemedicine appointment to get a prescription. medication.

While some lawmakers have been fighting this issue for years, legislation that would enshrine safeguards against governments and corporations collecting personal data for criminal surveillance and corporate profit has stalled. But the urgency has intensified in recent weeks.

“The answer can’t just be not to use technology,” Rep. Sara Jacobs, a California Democrat who introduced a digital privacy bill in June, told TIME. “These are services that are very useful to people. The answer is that we in government do our job and put the protections in place. »

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, Google search interest in “how to get an abortion” was more than six times higher than the day before. Internet searches like these could end up in criminal cases, and it’s hardly out of left field. In 2017, prosecutors used a Mississippi woman’s search history for pregnancy-terminating drugs as evidence in a trial over the death of her fetus. And in 2015, prosecutors used text messages about abortion pills, exchanged between friends, to convict a woman of negligence and feticide.

“Current privacy protections are pretty weak,” says Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital rights. There is no single, comprehensive federal law governing how user data is collected, stored or shared, leaving the issue of digital privacy largely up to companies to decide, she says. Period-tracking apps, for example, which millions of people use to track their menstrual cycles, could sell information to third parties.

“You can ask websites and apps to stop collecting your information, and you can even ask them to stop selling it,” Tsukayama says, but without federal data privacy law, “You can’t really force them.”

Here is an overview of recent bills that have been introduced at the federal and state levels aimed at protecting digital privacy.

My body, my data act

The My Body, My Data Act, introduced in the House on June 16 and later in the Senate, would mandate the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce a national privacy standard for reproductive health data collected by apps, mobile phones and search engines. This would require companies to collect and store only the health information strictly necessary to provide their services. It would also give users the right to access or delete their personal data.

Rep. Jacobs, who introduced the bill, says digital privacy issues are particularly acute in states like Texas and Oklahoma, where citizens can access rewards of up to $10,000 for having reported those who violate state abortion laws. “It would ensure that a small right-wing nonprofit group in Texas couldn’t just buy or access this data and create a mass surveillance system,” Jacobs explains, “to be able to expose people who seek the abortion, as mandated by Texas premium law.

Democratic senses Ron Wyden and Mazie Hirono, longtime proponents of digital privacy reform, introduced the bill in the upper house. The bills have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, NARAL, National Abortion Federation, URGE, National Partnership for Women & Families, Feminist Majority and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Jacobs says there’s a “very good chance” the Democratic-led House will vote on the bill soon. “I think people really recognize the urgency of this moment,” she says. But the odds of it getting past the sharply divided Senate are higher, privacy experts tell TIME.

Stop the anti-abortion misinformation law

Another bill, called the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation (SAD) Act, was introduced June 23 by a group of Democrats led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, along with the meaning. Bob Menendez from New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts.

It aims to crack down on the misleading advertising of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, known as crisis pregnancy centers, which often present themselves as reproductive health clinics without specifying that they are faith-based organizations whose mission is to dissuade pregnant women from having abortions. .

Read more: Anti-abortion pregnancy centers collect tons of data that could be used against women

A recent survey by TIME found that these pregnancy centers also collect vast amounts of personal data about women who come to them for help. These women often don’t understand that they are providing detailed health information – including addresses, marital status, demographic information, sexual and reproductive history, test results, ultrasound photos and information shared during counseling – to organizations run by the anti-abortion movement. Because most pregnancy centers, which outnumber abortion clinics across the country by three times, are not licensed medical clinics and offer free services, privacy advocates tell TIME that they are not legally bound by federal health data privacy laws.

“By promoting misleading or misleading advertisements about abortion services, emergency pregnancy centers are putting the health and well-being of women at risk,” Sen. Menendez said in a statement. The SAD Act directs the FTC to prohibit the deceptive practices of these centers and authorizes the agency to enforce these rules and collect penalties.

Some abortion providers have already begun taking steps to protect patient information before the Supreme Court ruling. Many now use paper records, make phone calls instead of texting or emailing, and use encrypted messaging apps.

Health and Location Data Protection Act

Another bill, the Health and Location Data Protection Act, introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, on June 15, would prohibit data brokers from selling or transferring a person’s sensitive medical and personal information, with some exceptions. It would also give the FTC $1 billion over 10 years to enforce those rules. “Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, putting Americans everywhere at serious risk by selling their most private information,” Warren said in a statement the day the legislation was introduced.

Recent reports from Vice revealed that for $160, one could buy a week’s worth of data on the origin of people who visited more than 600 Planned Parenthood clinics and where they went after. Although this data is not linked to people’s names, privacy advocates argue that these details can be discovered if an individual’s travel habits are unique. The acquisition and sale of user data, according to experts, is a billion-dollar industry that continues to grow.

“Data collection and processing is now at the heart of many business models,” says EFF’s Tsukayama. “It’s very difficult to convince people to change that unless there are penalties or other mechanisms to push that change.”

Read more: US high-tech surveillance could also track abortion seekers, activists warn

State legislation

In some states, local lawmakers have taken matters into their own hands.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, a Democrat, on May 4 introduced legislation prohibiting state pregnancy centers from sharing client data without permission. She noted a recent ruling by the state’s Office of Open Records that found state pregnancy centers were jeopardizing clients’ right to privacy by sending their data, including names and services received, as well as their pregnancy status, sexual history and information about STDs. — to Real Alternatives, the state-funded network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers.

“My bill would regulate this [data] they collect and the clearances they would be required to have, providing information to the woman so she knows exactly what she is getting into,” she told TIME. “In itself, this is a dangerous invasion of privacy, but given the recent movement to delegate private citizens to vigilantes to regulate reproductive health, the threat becomes even more imminent.”

Right now, however, there’s not much that states can do, says Alan Butler, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Because the United States lacks a comprehensive set of federal digital privacy laws, women in states with abortion bans are particularly vulnerable.

“The states that are most likely to restrict abortion rights,” he says, “are also the states that don’t have strong privacy laws.”

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Write to Nik Popli at [email protected] and Vera Bergengruen at [email protected]

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