Nearly unlimited collection of our personal information always led to this moment.
In the days since the Supreme Court destroyed Roe v. Wadeabolishing the constitutional right to abortion, there are gobs of published material and warnings from privacy advocates on how digital breadcrumbs could expose women seeking abortions to potential legal danger.
Whatever your take on abortion, this is a time to reflect on what we’ve given up to the hungry maw of America’s rampant data-gathering economy.
It is almost impossible to be truly anonymous in modern American life. There is so much digital information about who we are, where we go, what we buy and what we are interested in that we cannot possibly control it all. This data is usually used for more efficient marketing of shoes or Donutsbut it rarely stops there.
And now we see what happens when the digital intrusion of the 21st century collides with people who fear that all that information could be used against them in ways they could never have imagined.
I don’t want to scare people unnecessarily. My colleagues have reported that about half of the states are expected to allow bans or other limits to enact abortion, but even in those states, law enforcement focused on medical providers, not ordinary people. My colleagues also have reported that there are no abortion bans that attempt to persecute women who cross state lines to ask for abortions — although states may try to do so in the future.
But now that access to an abortion is no longer considered a fundamental right, it is staggering to consider the breadth and depth of the information we are spreading into the void.
Credit cards and video surveillance cameras sniff us† Sure, Google knows what we’ve searched and where we’ve been, but so do our cell phone providers and home internet companies, as well as many apps on our phones and middleman networks that we’ve never dealt directly with. When we use apps to look up the weather forecast or make sure our shelves are level, information could find its way into a military contractor or a data-for-hire broker†
We can take some steps to minimalize the amount of data we transmit, but it is virtually impossible to eliminate it. Few federal laws regulate the collection and sale of all this information about us, although Congress does discuss the latest of many attempts to pass a broad, national digital privacy law.
It’s not just digital information that we share. We speak with friends, relatives and strangers. In some cases where the authorities trying to sue women when inducing an abortion, it may be family members or medical providers tipping off law enforcement. (Here’s a handy overview of Consumer Reports about when medical privacy laws protect us and when not.)
Some of you reading this newsletter may think that if abortion is a crime, it’s fair game to use digital data about people seeking abortion in criminal prosecutions. Several years ago, I was a juror in a trial against a man accused of serially harassing his ex-girlfriend, and I felt both grateful and restless that there was so much digital evidence of his crimes, including his call logs, emails, online messages and other information pulled from his smartphone. (We found the man guilty of most of the charges against him.)
The authorities may use this information in ways that we agree to. But the sheer amount of information in so many hands with so few legal restrictions creates opportunities for abuse.
My colleagues have shown that data spat out by smartphones follow the president of the United States† Stalkers have tricked mobile phone providers handing over people’s personal information† have churches mined information about people in crisis to market them. Some US schools bought stuff to hack into children’s telephones and transfer the data. Automated license plate scanners have made it difficult to drive anywhere without end up in a database that law enforcement agencies could gain access without a warrant.
Since Roe was overthrown, most of the major US tech companies not shared publicly how they might deal with possible demands from law enforcement in future abortion-related criminal cases. businesses generally cooperate with legal requests such as warrants or subpoenas from the US authorities, although sometimes they push back and try to negotiate how much information they hand over.
In a situation where one company refuses to cooperate, there is a good chance that comparable digital information is available from another company that will. (There has been some attention around the potential for) time period tracking apps to chat to the authorities, but there are more direct sources of similar information.)
And companies built to collect as much information as possible won’t find it easy to become data-minimizing conversions, even if they wanted to.
Google, Facebook and Verizon will not protect the right to abortion if the Supreme Court says there is no such right. They and countless other companies with a boundless appetite for our information have created the conditions where privacy doesn’t really exist.
Related from my colleagues: Payment details can become proof of abortion†
Before we go…
Don’t worry about the crypto bros: The cryptocurrency market is collapsing, but my colleague David Yaffe-Bellany reported that the pain of losing is far from equal. A small number of industry executives have come out relatively unscathed, while some amateurs have lost much of their savings.
Flashback to the human labor involved in creating AI: New laid off Tesla included employees labeling data for driver assistance software. It is worth reading my colleague Cade Metz’s article from 2019 about all the people it took to learn computersincluding those that select images of stop signs and pedestrians from car sensors so that software can more easily identify what it ‘sees’.
Why did someone have flash drives with so much personal information? A technician who had access to data on the entire population of a Japanese city left the work with USB sticks containing confidential information of about 460,000 people. He lost the small storage devices during a night out drinking, reported my colleagues Makiko Inoue and Tiffany May. (He found them later.)
Hug for this
nothing is cuter than a lemur that throws its face in a flower†
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you want us to discover. You can reach us at email@example.com.