Biggest danger in overturning Roe: Your phone could send you to prison

You’re scared, you’re alone, and you’re pregnant. You can’t keep the baby, and you want to get an abortion. However, the state you live in had a trigger law that automatically made getting an abortion a crime when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade last week. You decide to get an abortion anyway at a clinic that is still doing it 100 miles from your hometown.

You’ve now committed a crime, and law enforcement has a whole new arsenal of evidence to arrest you at its disposal. Did you use Google maps or Waze to drive to the clinic? Law enforcement can obtain warrants or subpoenas to get your cell phone location data from Apple or Google and see where you went and how long you stayed there. Did you stop using your period-tracking app? Law enforcement can obtain that data. Did you search for an abortion clinic on Google? Law enforcement can obtain that data.

Let’s be clear, if law enforcement gets a warrant, Google, for example, can and will hand over the data that shows what cell phones were within five feet of an abortion clinic — or any other location — on a random Tuesday at 9:42am . Other apps also have that data, and they don’t need a warrant to hand it over, the police just write them a check.

We live in a new world, a scary world, and one that even I did not imagine. The worst I could think of was having an app on your phone, a weather app, whatever, something that uses your location, selling the data of all cellphones that had been within 100 feet of an abortion clinic to an anti-abortion group that would then come calling you at your home and harass you. During our podcast discussion, I even thought that was a little crazy. Don’t they tell you that this data is anonymous? Well from a New York Times investigation in 2019 we know that simply isn’t true. You, individually, can easily be pinpointed in this data. And law enforcement can use it to charge women who get abortions.

Think the tech companies will protect you? Think again. They have already handed over cellphone data when subpoenaed by the government. While the Supreme Court ruled that generally the police must get a warrant for data they can’t buy, the tech companies have been largely compliant with handing over data (if not just selling it to the highest bidder — which can be the government itself). And the tech companies’ silence over how they will handle data related to abortion prosecutions is deafening, as reported by Axios, with none willing to go on the record about what their policies will be.

How do we fix this very real privacy threat? The tech companies need to collectively decide to collect less data on you. It is the only alternative to a very real future of Big Brother overseeing every part of your life. But let’s even say that the big tech companies — Apple, Google etc. — decide to do the right thing and collect less data on you, what about that random app you have on your phone that tracks planes that fly in or tells you the weather in your area? They still have that data, and they are not subject to the same scrutiny as a Meta or Twitter.

We are moving into a very dangerous world where, regardless of your opinion on abortion, you should be very scared of what data the government can buy or subpoena that completely erodes our privacy as American citizens.

Liberty Vittert, PhD, is a professor of the practice of data science at the Olin Business School at the Washington University in St. Louis. She is also the feature editor of the Harvard Data Science Review and co-host of the Harvard Data Science Review podcast. She is an on-air statistician for “On Balance” on NewsNation. Follow her on Twitter @libertywittert

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