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How Roe V. Wade Is Prompting Us To Look Into Internet Privacy

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“Right now, and I mean this instant, delete every digital trace of any menstrual tracking.” This was tweeted by Gina Neff, a professor of technology and society at the University of Oxford, in light of the recent decision made to overturn Roe v Wade.

The overturning of Roe v Wade seems to be all the world can talk about. American women have taken this moment to discuss how this ruling will directly affect them, while women around the world empathize and come to wonder if their reproductive rights are next. For context, Roe v Wade was a landmark trial in which the right to an abortion was federally protected, allowing thousands of women to receive an abortion.

Recently, the historic case was overturned completely, leaving many women without options or access to safe abortion. The overturning of the case would result in only a few states being able to legally provide abortion. And, should someone feel the need to seek an abortion in a state where it isn’t legal, their abortion would be deemed a crime, resulting in legal repercussions.

Protesting the right to abortions

Protesting the right to abortions © Getty Images

But, how would they go about enforcing these laws? One of the easiest ways to do this is to catch someone in the act or, more tricky, catch someone who is intending to receive an abortion.

According to data analysts, one of the ways in which law enforcement could potentially target abortion seekers where abortion is illegal is through period tracking apps. Like most apps and program period tracking apps are no different in the world of free apps or cheap apps user data is gold. Often many apps notoriously make their money from selling their user’s data or using it to make customized suggestions and advertisements and, in some cases, law enforcement has tapped into people’s cell phones for vital evidence or in some cases subpoenaed user data from some companies in order to solve a case.

Period apps could provide anti-abortion groups and legislatures with all there evidence they need. At their most basic use, period apps track the begging and end of a period user’s menstrual cycle, but many of them offer other features to the users such as tracking sex patterns, predicting pregnancy, and tracking a pregnancy from the beginning of a pregnancy to the end of a pregnancy.

The government’s hand into our cyber lives goes beyond period tracking apps. The use of user data to potentially convict people of seeking an abortion can go beyond looking into apps but essentially all aspects of one’s digital life. According to an article from Cosmosimilar sentiments around Google searches were also raised in an open letter to the online search engine earlier this year, signed by politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The signees wrote: “We are concerned that… Google’s current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cell phone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.”

Period Tracker

Period Tracker © Flo

The letter then goes on to explain, “That’s because Google stores location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government agencies… Law enforcement officials routinely obtain court orders forcing Google to turn over its customers’ location information.” 

An alternative to traditional period trackers that harvest data would be making use of Apple’s native Health app for the time being, where end-to-end encryption of users’ Health records is available through iCloud. End-to-end encryption essentially guarantees that no third parties can look into data, including the government or Apple themselves.

Popular apps like Flo have realized that they are at risk of losing a large chunk of their American clients and have gone on to implement a new feature called anonymous mode which is reminiscent of Google’s incognito mode. This new feature is set to allow users to remove identifiers such as assume, email address and other identifiers from their profile. How would it be?  This work?  “If Flo were to receive an official request to identify a user by name or email, Anonymous Mode would prevent us from being able to connect data to an individual, meaning we wouldn’t be able to satisfy the request,” Schumacher said in an email to users.

This new assurance has warranted scepticism from online users as the period tracking app has found itself in hot water in the past due to its lack of transparency when it came to harvesting user data,  In the past, the company’s use of user data has gone under federal investigation. In 2021, Flo reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over concerns the company misled users with their privacy policy.

The world has always had a strange relationship with online anonymity and government surveillance. And, the recent overturning of  Roe v Wade has proven to be about more than one thing, going on to prompt a conversation into the amount of reach the government has into our lives both online and offline.

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