What would it take to make sure that, for a day, you were completely untraceable? Imagine you wanted to do something very straightforward, totally anonymously: for example, visit a shop an hour away from your home to buy a specific item. You could avoid telling anyone where you were going, update none of your social media profiles and sign off work for the day, giving no reason for your absence – but your phone could still track your location on a number of apps. What if you turned it off, or left it at home? Would you not still need to search for directions online?
So let’s say you knew exactly where you were going, had no need to google this item, had never read about it online and had never mentioned wanting to buy it to anyone you knew. Even then, when you arrived, you would need to make sure you paid in cash, having taken out the amount you needed gradually over time, avoided security cameras and didn’t take public transportation that would require a card payment – and that, along the way, you didn’t stop to purchase anything else.
These are the obstacles now facing tens of millions of people across the United States following the overturning on Friday 24 June of Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion. Under new anti-abortion laws, personal information collected from location data, internet search histories, text messages, period-tracking apps and much more can now be used in legal proceedings and handed over to law enforcement to investigate whether someone has sought out an abortion. This information can, in some states, be used to criminalise not only the pregnant person, but anyone who aids and abets an abortion, from a doctor carrying out a procedure to a friend who drives you to pick up medication.
Concerns around data privacy and obtaining an abortion have risen quickly since December, when the Supreme Court began to hear arguments in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy that has since led to the new Roe ruling. Though fears are mainly about things like emails, texts and location data, and the fact that many people don’t know how to delete incriminating information from their phones and laptops, fertility apps have become a focus point for pro-choice activists. On these apps, users provide information about their periods and track ovulation, often updating the app daily over the course of months and years. With many of these services, however, users have significantly less control over what data can be deleted and where information about their menstrual cycles is stored. Several of the biggest apps, such as Flo, have a history of handing over private user data over to Big Tech firms. This means users’ information, already logged and recorded, could be given to investigators without the need for users’ consent. Though Flo released a statement saying that it would be introducing an “anonymous mode” following the ruling, it’s unclear how it would work, or if it would stop law enforcement from accessing identifying details such as IP addresses or location information, even if the user’s name isn’t explicitly given.
All of this would have been enough of a challenge for those seeking a legal abortion last week. But the speed with which the law has changed – making those abortions, in some cases, illegal overnight – makes a digital trail even harder to erase. Thirteen states – Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming – had so-called “trigger laws” in place for when Roe was overturned, meaning that bans would either go into effect the moment the ruling was announced or 30 days after. Most of these involved an outright ban, some with limited exceptions, such as the pregnant person’s life being in danger. The penalties include legal fines of up to $100,000 and prison time of up to 14 years.
Because of this immediate change, people who had planned to get abortions now have little time to find alternative options. It’s only fair to assume many will be hurriedly Google searching what medications or resources might be available in their states, texting friends and family for help, or contacting medical professionals without thinking about what their browser history or phone apps are leaving behind. This doesn’t include the fact that many will have already recorded their pregnancy – or even just a lack of menstruation – on fertility-tracking apps, whose makers could now permanently store this information and potentially hand it over to law enforcement, who will undoubtedly be looking to make an example of frightened people trying to beat this cruel timing.
There are some resources available to those seeking (and those helping others to seek) an abortion, explaining how people can erase their personal data and make their digital lives more private (this one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is particularly clear and useful). There has also been renewed pressure on tech firms over the weekend to intervene and safeguard users’ data so that it cannot be used in criminal proceedings. But these options only go so far and require the fast action of companies that are infamously bad at responding to the urgent needs of their users.
In a better world, taking simple steps to make our online movements non-existent would make abortions accessible (in an ideal world, abortions would simply be safe, legal and free for all those who need or want them). Disappearing for a day – and hiding weeks and months of planning – is much harder than it seems and while reassurances of data privacy and increased protection from tech companies can help, it will never be straightforward for women to access the healthcare they need while abortion is illegal in many states. For women in the US, a digital footprint merely complicates an already devastating reversal of rights.
[See also: How many countries have tightened abortion laws?]