Lost in the acrimonious abortion debate in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling are fundamental and downright scary questions. What does the brave new world of privacy? What privacy protections are there, or what should be there now that abortion is illegal in so many states? A brave new world that may terrify tech companies and ultimately all of us.
A recent report from Reuters entitled US Tech Industry Frets About Handing Data to States Prosecuting Abortion sets out the issue. When you go online and search the web, there is a record created of your search history– and the sites to which you go. There is also geolocation data generated.
Let’s face it, companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook collect enormous amounts of personal data: where we’ve been, what we’ve bought, who we’ve talked to, and what we’ve said. These companies have a record of and can tell advertisers about just everything about you. Every time you run a search, you are revealing something about yourself. You are leaving more and more information.
Indeed, this very record enables tech companies to sell advertising and stay in business. It’s why when you search the web for, say, lawnmowers, you get an email or Facebook message from a lawnmower seller.
These vast digital records could be used by law enforcement to ferret out those in states where abortion is illegal who are looking to obtain an abortion
But now, these vast digital records could be used by law enforcement to ferret out those in states where abortion is illegal who are looking to obtain an abortion in a state where it’s permitted. Information that might indicate plans to terminate a pregnancy, for example. Information that might suggest someone will aid a woman in search of an abortion.
Prosecutors could seek warrants to subpoena internet search records of a woman who they suspect obtained an abortion. Or of anyone who seeks to assist her in some fashion.
Far fetched? Under Texas law, private citizens can sue those who assist a woman in getting an abortion. In Texas, anyone who performs or aids with the abortion can be sued – and by almost anyone. There is a $ 10,000 cash reward if the bounty hunters are successful. So if you drive a woman to another state or pay for a plane ticket, you could be sued. And your digital records could be subpoenaed to provide evidence of what you did. Or the bounty hunters could hack into systems to get what they want. Scary stuff.
And what about tech companies? Tech companies could eliminate any record of customer searches. But then they would have nothing to sell.
Or they could refuse to comply with the subpoena. Remember the hoopla when Apple refused to allow law enforcement to hack into a terrorist cell phone? That case was resolved when law enforcement found a hacker who did the job. Cold comfort now.
These companies’ business model depends on the data they collect and peddle. But now, that data can be used against the tech companies’ users who don’t want it revealed.
Granted, the tech companies face a dilemma. These companies’ business model depends on the data they collect and peddle. But now, that data can be used against the tech companies’ users who don’t want it revealed.
Maybe the brave new world and this newfound tension will make every tech company question the volume of data they are collecting, whether they need it, how it could be harmful, and how long they want to hold it. But again, that’s a little like asking them to kill the goose laying the golden egg. On the other hand, if people quit sharing information and using the tech services, it also undermines the tech business model, but nowhere near as likely.
Since many other constitutional rights hinged on the Roe v. Wade reasoning — LGBT rights, contraceptive rights, and interracial marriage rights, to name a few — the privacy onslaught could become our worst nightmare.
Till now, the issue has been to what extent law enforcement can obtain records when a serious crime has been committed. But now, in many states, abortion has become a serious crime. And going to a state where it’s legal may or may not be a crime as well. Not only that, the Supreme Court has now made what last week was a constitutional right now illegal in many states. And since many other constitutional rights hinged on the Roe v. Wade reasoning — LGTB rights, contraceptive rights, and interracial marriage rights, to name a few — the privacy onslaught could become our worst nightmare.
And that’s an even scarier proposition. Are our digital records about to become fair game now for law enforcement even if we go someplace to do something that’s legal there? Do we have any right to privacy with respect to the information? Will the tech companies that we have ceded our privacy rights now going to roll over? Can they?
Oh how easy it was to give up what was once our private information for convenience purposes. And now the chickens may be coming home to roost.
It’s a brave new world.
Photo Attribution: Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash