In A Post-Roe America, Googling "Abortion" Could Put You At Risk. Here’s How To Protect Yourself.
If you’re planning an abortion in certain states, the data on your smartphone could be used against you if you’re not careful.
In 2017, an online search for the abortion medication misoprostol was used to charge one woman with second-degree murder. In 2015, a series of text messages with a friend about getting an abortion helped convict another of feticide and child neglect. And that same year, activists used surveillance technology to target anti-abortion ads at women visiting abortion clinics.
This happened despite the protection of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which has defended the right for people to have abortions since 1973. But with a draft opinion indicating that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe and leave abortion legislation up to individual states, pregnant people who are trying to obtain abortions in the 23 states set to ban it will have to contend with a digital surveillance apparatus that could be used against them.
Though the scope of this surveillance has yet to be fully realized, online searches, internet history, and information collected by digital health apps all could potentially provide evidence against people seeking abortions in a post-Roe America. That makes digital hygiene tools and techniques a vital means of safeguarding people of childbearing age as they navigate a new reality.
“There are many people already advocating in the space of privacy and protection online — we are well equipped to approach the reproductive justice space with that same urgency,” Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which recently published digital security tips for abortion access, told BuzzFeed News.
It’s important to note that the draft Supreme Court opinion, which was obtained by Politico, is not a statement of law yet. Today, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.
Given how invasive modern technology has become, everyone can benefit from anti-surveillance best practices — and something is better than nothing. People may feel like digital security is “too complicated, or may feel ashamed that they haven't done it already,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight For The Future, a digital rights advocacy group, who has shared a list of helpful tips on Twitter. “But the reality is that even just doing a few basic things, like putting a strong passcode on your phone and turning on two-factor authentication on your email, will make you dramatically safer.”
Here are eight steps you can take to protect yourself online when planning an abortion.
1. Compartmentalize your online activity and set clear boundaries
To ensure you don’t accidentally reveal personal information online, Barnett recommends compartmentalizing browsers, email addresses, and phone numbers, and designating certain accounts for sensitive activities. For example, create an anonymous email account and Google Voice number to register for services.
Additionally, when interacting with communities online or in person, such as a group of individuals in the abortion access space, it can be useful to set boundaries on what can and cannot be shared. Consent agreements around sharing images, for example, are crucial, Barnett said. Some people may also choose to adopt linguistic steganography, or code words, to conceal the nature of their conversations.
2. Use a burner phone
Apps and platforms track you. It’s one of the primary ways that developers can make a buck off your precious data, which can be harvested and sold to advertisers eager to deploy that information to better target you online.
To make it harder for your information to be harnessed against you, consider a no-frills burner phone. In the past, women waiting for their appointments at Planned Parenthood have been served anti-abortion propaganda that was geo-targeted to their specific location. SafeGraph, a data broker, has also specifically collected and sold information about the identities of people who have visited abortion clinics. For anyone participating in a pro–abortion rights protest, burner phones — or even just leaving your device at home — can ensure that your data, and information about your personal network, is not accessible to authorities such as law enforcement.
3. Be vigilant about who you share personal health information with
The legal scheme behind Texas’s latest anti-abortion law enables private citizens to claim “bounties,” or cash prizes, for suing people who they think have received abortions. This may incentivize anti-abortion activists, stalkers, or vengeful ex-partners to try to collect private information about your health situation online.
Bad actors could try to get this information directly by hacking into your accounts. They could also obtain it by purchasing data about you from data brokers who gather extensive information about the websites you visit, the news you read, and even your physical location.
4. Turn on two-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication is always a good choice, whether it’s adding an extra layer of security to your Gmail account, telehealth platform, or messaging app. If you haven’t enabled this on your accounts already, do it now.
5. Browse privately when you can
Private browsers like Tor and Brave, which deliberately obfuscate your data and online traffic, can be useful tools to securely research abortion medications or coordinate a trip to a health clinic.
The abortion privacy guide issued by the Digital Defense Fund also recommends disabling the unique mobile advertising ID on your smartphone that gives your device permission to track you. To do so on iOS, go to Settings > Privacy Advertising and click Limit Ad Tracking. On Android, you can go to Settings > Privacy > Ads and then click on Delete Advertising ID.
6. Chat on encrypted messaging apps with disappearing texts
Encrypted messaging apps like Signal are a mainstay of digital privacy guides. The toolkit published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation contains a primer on how and why to use encrypted chat services. Signal, which can be downloaded for free on app stores, allows users to send end-to-end encrypted chats, meaning their content cannot be coherently intercepted. Users can also enable disappearing messages, which delete chats after a specific amount of time.
But remember, it takes two (or more) to practice digital safety. Make sure that everyone you’re chatting with is following the same precautions.
7. Be careful of the fine print
Instead, consider the analog option of tracking your period on a traditional calendar.
8. Consider a professional deletion service
You can often demand that data brokers remove information about you from their files. But the process is difficult and time-consuming (there are a lot of data brokers). If you can afford it, though, there are services you can pay to do this task for you. DeleteMe routinely scours the internet for personal information about its clients — things like email addresses, social media handles, and marital status — and files requests asking the brokers selling it to remove it. If you live in a state where information of this type could be weaponized against you and have the means to afford such a service, it might well be worth it.