How you can protect yourself online, post-Roe
Abortion is still legal in Michigan.
But many privacy advocates are urging caution about online activity that could be used to prosecute people seeking or assisting with abortion services.
Michigan’s State Attorney General Dana Nessel sent out an alert, advising caution when downloading apps that track fertility. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Constitutional right to abortion in the United States has put a spotlight on tech companies and how they protect user data.
Websites and apps track a lot of information about you: your location, search history, direct messages, photos, money transactions.
This tracking is largely used for targeting advertisements. But the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision means tech companies could participate in enforcing states’ anti-abortion laws.
“At the end of the day, each data point is about a person,” said Patricia Garcia, co-director of the University of Michigan’s Ethics, Society, and Computing lab.
Garcia is also the coauthor of the Feminist Data Manifest-no. The “manifest-no,” written before the pandemic, was an experiment in imagining a world where data was respected and tied to personhood.
But now, in a post-Roe world, Garcia said, “I think we're starting to understand a lot more how data can be tied very closely to people's bodies and what that means for bodily autonomy.”
So here’s a quick breakdown of where we’re at with abortion access, what user data is, and some privacy tips you can follow to limit your digital footprint:
What is the status of abortion in Michigan right now?
Michigan is in a bit of limbo. Abortion is legal in the state, since the courts have temporarily blocked a restrictive law from the 1930s. Michigan’s attorney general says she will not enforce the law should it come back into effect.
Elections are coming up in November, and ACLU Michigan is currently collecting signatures to put abortion rights on the ballot.
“We are laser focused on collecting and preparing our signatures during this final week before they are due to the Secretary of State,” an ACLU statement to Michigan Radio reads. “We are feeling very confident right now and expect this issue will be put into voters’ hands in November, so these nightmare scenarios do not become a reality in Michigan.”
However, states across the Midwest are seeing restrictive bans fall into place.
“Michigan and its residents — there's a lot riding on us, and people looking will be looking to us,” Garcia said. “I think because of that, and because sort of the legality and criminality of abortion is still very much a gray area, I think it's more important now than ever for women, trans people and people with uteruses who are seeking abortions to protect themselves.”
What does data have to do with it?
If you want an abortion or have questions about one, your browsing history, location, and text messages can be a form of evidence against you, said Autumm Caines, an instructor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn who specialized in privacy in education tech.
The safest and most secure data is the data that you do not collect. The data that does not exist.Autumm Caines, instructor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn
“Data is collected through surveillance on most people … anybody who uses the Internet in any kind of way,” she said. “That data can be weaponized against people … it has been weaponized [more] against people of color and different [marginalized] communities disproportionately than others.”
Caines said with the safety net of Roe gone, experts are looking at experiences in other states as a guide.
Even before the Dobbs decision, there are examples of data being used to track people's reproductive health. In Massachusetts, abortion opponents used geofence data to target ads near family planning clinics. A woman was arrested in Mississippi for a home stillbirth after authorities saw that she searched about abortion on the internet. In Minnesota, a father found out his teen daughter was pregnant before he did because Target was sending her diaper ads.
“I often make the point, ‘Why are you even collecting [particular kinds of] data?’ The safest and most secure data is the data that you do not collect. The data that does not exist. That is the most secure data,” Caines said of companies and institutions.
“What we often hear back [from companies] is, ‘Oh, don't worry, we keep it secure. We're not just leaving it laying around. We are securing this data.’ But there's … always a caveat that when presented with a warrant from law enforcement, that they would have to turn that data over.”
Because in many parts of the country, “[o]ur idea of a criminal is now a woman who's seeking health care. And that's a big change in a very short amount of time.”
Google released a report gathering all of the requests for warrants it fielded from 2018 to 2020, in which law enforcement asked for stored location history. Michigan ranked fourth-highest in the nation for location requests. While it made up less than five percent of all requests, Michigan had nearly 500 requests in 2020 and, in total, was still ahead of bigger states like New York.
“The report doesn't cover what was done with those warrants and those requests for data or how much data was given,” Garcia said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said geofence warrants run afoul of the Fourth Amendment because “by design, they sweep up people wholly unconnected to the crime under investigation.” A federal judge in Virginia ruled them unconstitutional.
What can I do?
When approaching a digital security plan, Caines suggests you first identify from whom or what you want to protect yourself.
While Michigan Radio cannot provide legal advice, here are some tips other guides and experts like Caines and Garcia have shared:
What if I want to hide from someone in my household?
- Many abortion-supporting websites contain a quick “escape” button at the upper right-hand corner of the website. When clicking, the website automatically exits out of your browser and deletes itself from your search history.
- Use the incognito browser and clear your browser history.
- Go to your settings in Google and turn off your location. (Do this with your smartphone too.)
- Turn off reporting of search history and recording of search history locally.
- A blank search history can tip people off, Caines said. One way to avoid this is to use multiple browsers and use alternative email accounts for specific uses.
- Get a two-factor authentication app, like Duo Mobile, so that every time you sign in to any website, you are prompted to enter a unique code that shows up on your phone. (This prevents strangers from getting into your accounts.)
- If you are trying to find a service that provides abortion, make sure you are not looking at a “crisis pregnancy center.” These centers are anti-abortion facilities and usually attempt to persuade people not to get an abortion. Use this map to see a list of crisis centers.
What if I want to hide my data from authorities or my internet service provider?
- Instead of Google Chrome or your default browser, use Firefox, Firefox Focus, Brave or Tor instead. (And use your browser more than the app!)
- Use DuckDuckGo as a search engine instead of Google.
- Get a VPN, which helps hide you from your internet service provider. Mullvad, IVPN, Windscribe, and ProtonVPN are reported to have no trackers on them.
- Use AdBlock Plus, HTTPS Everywhere, and Privacy Badger to block trackers and encrypt your browsing
- Use Signal and Keybase, which are encrypted messaging apps. (While WhatsApp is much more popular, it is owned by Meta/Facebook.)
- Turn off ad personalization
- Don’t use FaceID — and you do not need to turn over your device without a warrant.
- While there have been many calls to delete period tracking apps, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said you may not need to do that just yet. Although, it is important to use an app that prioritizes privacy, like Euki and Drip. And if you do choose to stop using your app, look to see how to delete your data — just deleting the app won’t do.
Is there any legislation on this?
At the end of the day, true anonymity online is hard to achieve. We agree to a lot, without knowing what exactly we are agreeing to.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization best known for promoting digital privacy, supports the “My Body, My Data” Act. The bill supports the restriction of collecting reproductive health data and making privacy policies easy to understand for consumers.
Michigan’s own data laws tend to focus on being notified if your data is stolen during a breach. However, Michiganders in 2020 overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’ to requiring warrants for electronic searches.
Only five states have comprehensive consumer data privacy laws. In general, the United States is far behind the European Union in data protection laws.
“It’s pretty wild west here,” Caines said. “And it’s just greatly concerning, especially when we have such a shifting landscape around whether or not something is even a crime or not. And when basic health care becomes a crime, it becomes particularly concerning.”