The Supreme Court is shortly expected to issue its decision on a challenge to Roe v. Wade that will—if a leaked draft version of the opinion holds—end federal protection for abortion access across the US. If that happens, it will have far-reaching consequences for millions of people. One of those is that it could significantly increase the risk that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions, sending authorities information that could lead to criminal proceedings.
Opponents of abortion have been using methods like license plate tracking for decades. In front of many clinics around the US, it remains a daily reality.
“The biggest fear, I think, is that there are going to be states that not only ban abortion in short order, but start criminalizing pregnant people who are seeking abortion services even out of state,” says Nathan Wessler, the deputy project director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the ACLU.
Some states that protect abortion services might be able to limit what out-of-state law enforcement can do directly, he notes, but that “doesn’t mean that there won’t be anti-abortion vigilantes recording information [outside of clinics] and then sending it to aggressive prosecutors in abortion-banned states.”
There is evidence that anti-abortion activists are already keeping close track of legal abortion activity. In 2014, for example, a recording surfaced of a training session for Texas anti-abortion activists, led by Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas. In it, Garnett explained how license plate tracking is used to keep tabs on both a clinic’s clients and its doctors.
“You track license plates … coming into any abortion facility. We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet. This way you can track whether or not a client comes back,” she said in the video.
We’ve discussed this before, and I said at the time that any real enforcement effort is going to involve a lot of invasive searches. License plate tracking is an old technique – as the story notes, it goes back to at least the 90s – but there are much more modern strategies as well.
A location data firm is selling information related to visits to clinics that provide abortions including Planned Parenthood facilities, showing where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed there, and where they then went afterwards, according to sets of the data purchased by Motherboard.
How data collecting intersects with abortion rights, or the lack thereof, is likely to gather more attention in the wake of the draft. The country may also see an increase in vigilante activity or forms of surveillance and harassment against those seeking or providing abortions. With this aggregated location data available to anyone on the open market, customers could include anti-abortion vigilantes as well. Anti-abortion groups are already fairly adept at using novel technology for their goals. In 2016, an advertising CEO who worked with anti-abortion and Christian groups sent targeted advertisements to women sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics in an attempt to change their decision around getting an abortion. The sale of the location data raises questions around why companies are selling data based on abortion clinics specifically, and whether they should introduce more safeguards around the purchase of that information, if be selling it at all.
“It’s bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data selling marketplace, told Motherboard in an online chat after reviewing the data. “This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions—how you dox clinics providing this service.”
Read the rest and do a little googling yourself. It’s very possible to identify people who have visited abortion clinics from “anonymized” location data and census tracks, especially people who live in less populated places. Geofencing, which has been used in the past for targeted anti-abortion advertising, may be used by law enforcement agencies that are all in on the forced birth agenda. It’s scary stuff. And when you see it happen, don’t say you couldn’t have known.