How To Protect Your Digital Privacy If You Need An Abortion Post-Roe

Experts explain what’s at stake and what you can do about it.

by Kaitlyn Wylde
Originally Published: 
A woman searches how to have an abortion in a state with a trigger law. How to protect your digital ...
Arman Zhenikeyev/Corbis/Getty Images

You might casually use your phone to log your steps or menstrual cycle, or to search common medical questions before you see your doctor. In a world where Roe v. Wade no longer protects your right to an abortion, however, these innocuous pieces of data could be dangerous, advocates warn. On June 24, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn the landmark ruling, a decision that had been widely anticipated since Politico published a leaked draft opinion in the case in May. With Roe no longer the law of the land, advocates are suggesting that people who could become pregnant take a closer look at the data they give their phone access to, especially if they live in a state with abortion trigger bans.

“There is concern that a person’s personal data residing on a mobile device could be used to charge them with a crime, should the data prove that they had an abortion,” cybersecurity expert Kristina Podnar tells Bustle. This has happened even with Roe in place: In 2017, after a Mississippi woman lost a pregnancy at home, the cause of the fetus’ death was brought into question. A search for how to buy abortion pills online was used as evidence to charge her with second-degree murder, though the charges were ultimately dropped.

Even without Roe, you still have some protections. C. Sophia Zoubul, an attorney at C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, a law firm that fights for victims of privacy violations, tells Bustle that in a state where abortions were illegal, law enforcement would need probable cause to search a phone, unless the owner consented.

But it’s not just law enforcement that people should be worried about. “For example, period tracking apps may promise privacy, but then package that data and disclose it to unaccountable third-parties, who could then disclose the data to law enforcement,” she says, adding that iIf you are in a state where abortion has been criminalized, “you should assume the worst and take every step you can to protect your data.” Evie Jeang, a family lawyer who’s the founder of Ideal Legal Group and Surrogacy Concierge, notes that in 2021, a bill was introduced that would make it illegal for law enforcement to obtain data from these kinds of third parties without a court order, but as of May 2022, it hasn’t moved forward.

Podnar adds that it’s worth remembering that anyone, anywhere is vulnerable to a hack at any time — for example, someone with your password gaining access to your email. This would be of particular concern in states where abortion bans are enforced by lawsuits from private citizens, such as Texas or Oklahoma. The more personal information you give your phone access to, the less control you have over your privacy and autonomy.

Whether you live in a state where there is no right to an abortion or you just want to tighten your digital hygiene, here’s how to minimize the amount of personal data on your phone.

Read Your Apps’ Privacy Policies

If you’ve ever downloaded an app to your phone, you should be familiar with its privacy policy. Some apps that seem safe, including period-tracking apps, have been found to share personal data with third parties. “This type of data that we all freely give access to without thinking about [the fact that it’s] likely the biggest of risks,” Podnar says. Read the policy of every single app you have on your phone and then decide if you feel comfortable with keeping it.

Some red flags to look out for: Anything you don’t understand or that’s overly technical; privacy policies that are dated before 2018, as new laws have been passed for user safety since; and unclear motives for the collection or storage of your data. If you decide you don’t trust the app, delete your account and the app permanently — not just from your home screen — to ensure it no longer has access to your data going forward.

Reconsider Using Health Apps

Even if you’re not concerned about law enforcement gaining access to your health apps, you’re always at risk of being hacked, and exposing your personal health information can have various implications. “Weigh the potential benefits and costs of using your device to track your health, even in aggregate form,” Podnar says. If you’re not family planning or getting insights on irregular periods, how much do you really need an app to track your menstrual cycle, versus using a pen and paper? Could you be affected if your personal information were released?

If there’s an option, Podnar says to email the app when you no longer need to use it. “If you’re … finished with childbearing or no longer interested in tracking your reproductive health, ask that your fertility data be permanently deleted,” Podnar suggests.

Limit Your Phone’s Ability To Track Your Location

If you don’t block your phone’s access to your whereabouts, it will track you, and that data could be accessed in a hack, through a warrant, or via third-party sharing. On May 3, VICE reported that a data broker sold location data of devices that visit abortion clinics — including where they came from, how long they were there, where they went after. Though the data was anonymized, VICE reported that there were instances where as few as five devices were associated with a given clinic.

If you’d like to keep this information private, go into your Settings and adjust or turn off your location settings. While some apps might function better with having access to your location, like a map app, others, like social media, don’t need to know where you are in order for them to work. You can revoke or restore location settings at any time. Better yet, leave your phone at home if you’re going somewhere sensitive.

Use Separate Accounts For Sensitive Information

When possible, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends digital civil liberties, suggests “compartmentalizing” your data. For example, if you’re going to be emailing a doctor regarding a health concern, you might want to create a separate email account just for this correspondence, as opposed to using your everyday email.

Similarly, consider doing your health-related internet browsing on a separate private or incognito window, rather than just another tab on your current browsing session. The Digital Defense Fund, an organization that uses technology to protect abortion access, recommends using DuckDuckGo, a private browser service that doesn’t collect any data about you, or track your searches. This method not only helps you to keep your search history private, but also keeps advertisers from learning about you.

Message Privately

There are various messaging apps that either encrypt your messages or delete them permanently after they’re read to ensure your privacy. If you want to discuss health-related topics without sharing any data with your mobile provider, consider using one of these apps. The Repro Legal Helpline, a resource run by the reproductive health nonprofit If/When/How, suggests Signal, a free app that allows you to securely communicate via text message, voice message, video, photo, or even .GIF.

Increase Login Security

If you don’t have two-factor authentication on your email and bank accounts, now’s the time to add it. According to Podnar, all you need is your email to get hacked to potentially lead to a dozen other hacks on apps you didn’t even know were connected. Two-factor authentication makes it harder for people to get into your accounts: Not only do they need your password, but they also need access to your phone or back-up email to log in with a one-time code.

Updating your passwords regularly and ensuring that they’re strong and distinct for each app also helps to keep your accounts safe. Podnar also suggests you avoid logging into apps through other apps whenever possible. For example, while it might be easier to log into Yelp with your Facebook account, taking the time to register as a new user via email ensures that Yelp isn’t getting access to all of your Facebook data unnecessarily, nor would your Yelp information be compromised if your Facebook got hacked.

Cybersecurity is always at risk, so setting a reminder in your phone to update passwords, brush up on apps’ privacy policies, and check on your location settings is good practice.

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