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Abortion provider BPAS under attack from hackers

Following the arrest of a hacker who planned to publish women's details, there have been 2,500 attem

An anti-abortion rally outside Parliament. London, 2007.
An anti-abortion rally outside Parliament. London, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Last week, a 27 year old man was jailed for stealing the personal details of 10,000 women from Britain’s largest pregnancy advisory clinic.

James Jeffery, a member of the hacking collective Anonymous, planned to publish the names, email addresses and telephone numbers of these women, which he took from the website of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail at Southwark Crown Court.

But the risk to BPAS is far from removed. Indeed, the BBC reports this morning that in the five weeks since Jeffery’s arrest, a mind-boggling 2,500 attempts have been made to hack into the advisory service's computer systems.

As yet, none of these attempts have been successful, and BPAS has reassured women that their details are safe. But this is a seriously worrying development. Around 60,000 women contact BPAS each year, and 53,000 have abortions under their supervision. Their privacy is paramount. Sentencing Jeffery, Judge Malcolm Gledhill spoke of the potentially “terrible consequences” of the women's details being published:

Many of them were vulnerable women, vulnerable simply because they had had a termination or because of their youth or because their family did not know about their situation.

That is quite apart from the risk to their personal safety from anti-abortion activists.

So where are these latest hacking attempts coming from? It is difficult to say. The IP addresses suggest that almost half of the computers used during these hacking attempts come from the US. However, as the BBC points out, the nature of hacking means it is impossible to say with any certainty that this means the hackers are US-based.

The US is home to a far more virulent and live debate on abortion than we currently see in the UK, but there is serious cause for concern about the direction of travel on home shores. Elements of government are undeniably hostile to abortion. Hardcore anti-abortion backbenchers like Nadine Dorries are encouraged by sympathetic ministers like Andrew Lansley. Dorries’ proposals on  that women undertake independent counselling before they are allowed to have an abortion has been adopted by the Department of Health despite the fact that the Commons voted against it. Lansley recently announced spot checks on abortion clinics – including those run by BPAS – after reports that a small number of doctors were pre-signing consent forms to circumvent the rule that states that two doctors must attest a woman’s sanity before an abortion is allowed.

Clearly, the assault on BPAS’s cyber-security is something else altogether – a renegade, bottom-up attack by what appears to be a collection of individuals rather than an organised political force.

But it is a reminder that the battle on abortion is not yet won. Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general and a pro-choice campaigner, has called for the police to prosecute anyone who attempts to break in to BPAS’s computers. She was right to do so. Whether the attacks are coming from hackers or ministers, the law must protect women’s rights to both abortion and to medical privacy.