June 28, 2022

Abortion criminalization could weaponize personal data

stock photo

stock photo

An individual’s digital data could be used as evidence in future abortion cases. Apps that track periods, as well as location services, could be used to target anyone aiding in or needing an abortion. 

IU Maurer School of Law professor Jody Madeira said that period tracking apps like Flo might be used to identify women at risk of having abortions. The app tracks menstrual cycle and period length, which makes it easier to indicate the potential for a pregnancy. 

“We don’t know if the makers of these apps really are interested in helping women track periods, they might be interested in trying to get information in order to track women for other purposes,” Madeira said. Selling or giving private data to other parties has experts like herself concerned. 

Services like Google could be subpoenaed in the future to provide a defendant’s location information for abortion cases. State senators delivered a letter to the CEO of Google last month, urging him to stop obtaining what they called unnecessary location data in light of the opinion leak. 

In places like Texas, there would be an incentive for people to buy or receive that data. The Texas Heartbeat Act says that residents can sue an individual proven to have aided in an abortion effort for at least $10,000. Madeira said that this will open the door for people to take underhanded means to get information on individuals and profit. 

States with particularly aggressive legislation and criminalization of abortion are what make law professor Fred Cate most concerned. Acquisition of location, app, and phone data by aggressive state governments could lead to people being suspects in an abortion case. 

“This could very well become not unlike the Underground Railroad,” Cate said. “Women needing to get abortions… are going to be just like runaway slaves over 100 years ago, needing a network of people who would help protect them and move them along.” 

Cate said the next step is looking for sensibility and civility in what the legislature and political leaders do. 

That decision could be decided as early as July 6, when Gov. Eric Holcomb will hold a special session with the general assembly to discuss inflation relief and abortion restrictions. 

“The state legislature could come in, it could say we are going to prohibit abortions, but it could decide not to criminalize it,” Cate said.

In the interim, Madeira advises those with the ability to bear children to stay incredibly cautious. 

Another popular period tracking app, Clue, announced via social media today that its users’ information is made safe and secure due to the European General Data Protection Regulation, which is the “toughest privacy and security law in the world,” according to the regulation’s website.

Apps like this are safer, according to Madeira. To gain access you would need to hack it or have access to the provider. 

“It's currently of greater use to track your period with some reasonably safe app than it is to take the risk that you're going to be pregnant,” Madeira said.

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