While it may be increasingly important for people in the US to consciously consider what they’re posting when it comes to their own abortions or those of loved ones, Hayley McMahon, an independent public health researcher who studies abortion access, notes that the goal of this advice is not to chill speech, but to keep people safe.
“I don’t ever want to tell someone they shouldn’t talk about their experience or they can’t talk about their experience, because there’s tons of power in abortion storytelling,” McMahon says. “But I think people need to have all of the information and an understanding of the risks, and then they can make choices about what to say where.”
Know Your Rights
Researchers emphasize, too, that people in the US should know and feel secure in their rights when it comes to dealing with law enforcement. If you are being questioned by police, you can simply say, “I am exercising my right to remain silent and I want to speak with an attorney.” Resources like the Repro Legal Helpline can help connect you with specific legal advice. Additionally, lock your devices with a strong, unique PIN number, keep them locked, and simply ask for an attorney if a cop attempts to compel you to unlock your device.
McMahon also adds that in the very rare case of a complication with a medication abortion, people should not feel pressure to disclose the treatment to clinicians in the emergency room or other health care settings. Simply saying, “I think I’m having a miscarriage” will suffice.
“People need to understand that it’s impossible to tell the difference between spontaneous miscarriage and medication abortion,” McMahon says. “Medication abortion simply induces a miscarriage. And of course, we typically want everyone to disclose their health history to their clinician, but in this case, the treatment is the same, so nothing is lost by not disclosing that information.”
Deluge of Data
Using apps, browsing the web, and using search engines are all activities that can expose personal details, creating a major challenge in controlling the flow of personal information as people research or seek abortions. And often by the time someone is seeking an abortion, they have already generated data that could reveal their health status. Period-tracking apps, for example, gather data that may seem benign but is clearly sensitive in the context of potential abortion criminalization. In one recent case, the Federal Trade Commission investigated and sanctioned the fertility-tracking app Flo Health for sharing user health data with marketing and analytics firms, including Facebook and Google. And researchers have also found numerous examples of health websites sharing personal data with third parties or conducting targeted ad-tracking without adequately informing users and in violation of their privacy policies.
Using a search engine that doesn’t track potentially sensitive user data, like DuckDuckGo, and browser extensions that block web trackers, like EFF’s Privacy Badger, are all steps you can take to significantly cut down on how much of your browsing data ends up in tech companies’ hands. And consider analog options, if possible, for recording and storing reproductive information, like a notebook or paper calendar where you log details of your menstrual cycle.
One of the most pernicious and complicated aspects of attempting to rein in your personal data as you research or seek an abortion is the question of how to mitigate the collection of your location data. Always turn off location services for as many apps as possible—iOS and Android both make this relatively easy now. And if you’re traveling to receive an abortion, you might consider leaving your phone at home or keeping it in a faraday bag for as much of the trip as possible.
“A lot of those data-generating activities that you’ve already engaged in in the past are already out there,” says Andrea Downing, founder of the nonprofit Light Collective and a security and privacy researcher focused on patient populations and social media. “You can delete apps from here forward, turn off location services, stop using a fertility app, and those are all great steps. But it’s also reasonable if people can’t remember everything all the time. Patient populations are susceptible and vulnerable online, and we need to focus on protecting them.”
McMahon, the independent public health researcher, echoes this sentiment, noting that any small steps a person can take to defend their data are positive and should be celebrated.
“I want to emphasize, it is definitely not someone’s fault if they forget to do any of these things and then get criminalized,” she says. “People may feel like they made a mistake if they reach out to others for help, but no! You did a normal human thing and the system is criminalizing you.”
While issues of digital privacy are extremely salient to people seeking abortions, they impact every marginalized and disenfranchised group. And as the Light Collective’s Downing points out, they ultimately affect everyone.
“Roe v. Wade is about privacy, it was always the core thing underlying that case,” she says. “So even if you are not a person seeking an abortion, you need to be thinking in terms of how your rights may be next.”