Tech companies can turn over abortion-related data

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When law enforcement authorities demand personal data belonging to people suspected of having abortions, tech companies will likely hand it over.

Why is this important: Companies like Google and Facebook collect massive amounts of personal data, including information about where we’ve been, what we’ve bought, who we’ve talked to, and what we’ve said. States that have made abortion a crime make anyone who miscarries a potential target for a police data request.

The big picture: The companies aren’t responding directly to questions about how they will respond to such demands now that the Supreme Court has allowed states to ban abortion.

Yes, but: The companies’ privacy policies and past conduct clearly answer the question: they may challenge what they consider to be overbroad data requests, but generally they will cooperate with criminal investigations.

What’s at stake: Period-tracking apps have attracted attention, for obvious reasons, but the potentially relevant data is much broader – from Amazon shopping data to Google search queries, location data from phone carriers mobile to messaging data from messaging and chat providers.

How it works: Law enforcement is already seeking to access location data, content, usernames, browser history and other online activities of tech companies through warrants or subpoenas .

  • Now they will seek the same information in abortion investigations in states that have criminalized it, India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Axios.

Driving the news: Big tech platforms haven’t rushed to clarify how they will handle legal claims related to abortion lawsuits since Friday’s Dobbs ruling. They were also silent when Axios popped the question after a draft decision leaked in May.

  • But company policies — including Apple, Google and Meta (Facebook) — make it clear how they deal with these data requests.
  • “Like other technology and communications companies, Google regularly receives requests from governments and courts around the world to disclose user data,” the company says in its privacy policy. “Our legal team reviews every request, regardless of type, and we frequently push back when a request seems too broad or doesn’t follow the right process.”

Between the lines: There are several reasons why companies are unlikely to confirm their plans and procedures.

  • The questions remain largely hypothetical at this time, and there’s not much to be gained by tipping them.
  • Moreover, no company wants to publish a title indicating that it intends to transmit personal data.

The plot: Law enforcement does not necessarily need a warrant to obtain certain information online because it is sold by data brokers.

  • “Even though the government can obtain a court order, subpoena or warrant to access the data, there are currently many different channels to do so without going through this court process,” said Center member Caitlin Chin. of strategic and international studies, says Axios.

Our thought bubble: The post-Roe world will have every tech company looking at the amount of data they collect and wondering if they need it, how it might be harmful, and how long they want to keep it.

  • Data minimization, already an adopted trend and principle in the EU, becomes all the more important in the context of an increased volume of government demands to enforce laws that a majority of the population opposes.
  • Apple has been the loudest advocate among big tech companies for limiting its own access to customer data. Google, which relies much more on data-driven advertising, has also taken significant steps in recent years to make it easier to remove certain data.
  • “As long as companies collect this data and store it, they will continue to be subpoenaed,” EFF’s McKinney said.

Another twist: Without clear standards for personal data control, many people will simply delete period-tracking apps or think twice about seeking health information online – as changing laws make data accessible reliable personal health more urgent than ever.

  • “I think people can cut themselves off from accessing the important reproductive health information they need because of these privacy issues,” Chin said.

And after: Activists encourage tech companies to take a fresh look at the products they have in development to imagine the types of data they might generate and how that data might be used against a customer’s interests by an intrusive government .

  • “Privacy is a time-shifted risk, which means what is convenient and risk-free today can have devastating consequences tomorrow,” said Frederike Kaltheuner of Human Rights Watch. wrote after Friday’s decision. “We need to design the technologies we depend on in a way that protects us, regardless of the political climate.”

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