Roe v. Wade Overturn Sparks Push For Stronger Privacy Protections

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn(Opens in a new window) Roe v. Wade is sparking fears tech companies will be subpoenaed to handover data that’ll be used to prosecute abortion seekers.

On Friday, four Democrat lawmakers responded to the court decision by demanding the FTC crack down on both Google and Apple for facilitating the “unrestrained collection” of people’s personal data through their smartphones. 

“Technology companies must take immediate steps to limit the collection and retention of customer data so that they don’t become tools of persecution,” US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said in a statement(Opens in a new window) on Friday. 

Ending Roe v. Wade opens the door for over a dozen states across the US to soon criminalize abortion, as PCMag’s Chandra Steele wrote back in May. This means women who seek out the procedure, or anyone who aids them, could face investigation and prison time, depending on the local law.

Democrat lawmakers along with privacy advocates are now growing worried(Opens in a new window) prosecutors in these anti-abortion states will use subpoenas to demand tech companies help them identify which users have visited an abortion provider.

On Friday, four Democrat lawmakers including Wyden, senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Sara Jacobs (D-California) sent a letter(Opens in a new window) to the FTC, demanding it intervene by going after the data collection practices of both Google and Apple.

“These companies have failed to inform consumers of the privacy and security dangers involved in using those products. It is beyond time to bring an end to the privacy harms forced on consumers by these companies,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Specifically, the lawmakers take issue with both Apple and Google using “advertising identifiers,” which can be assigned to a user’s smartphone and the apps they use. “While purportedly anonymous, these advertising identifiers are easily linkable back to individual users. This is because some data brokers sell databases that explicitly link these advertising identifiers to consumers’ names, email addresses, and telephone numbers,” the letter says.

The same advertising identifiers can risk exposing a user’s private information, including what apps and sites they use and location data. Although both companies now allow users to opt out from the advertising identifiers, the lawmakers still claim “Apple and Google enabled governments and private actors to exploit advertising tracking systems for their own surveillance and exposed hundreds of millions of Americans to serious privacy harms.”

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Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Google denied doing anything wrong. “Google never sells user data, and Google Play strictly prohibits(Opens in a new window) the sale of user data by developers,” the company said. “Additionally, Google Play has policies(Opens in a new window) in place that prohibit using this data for purposes other than advertising and user analytics. Any claims that advertising ID was created to facilitate data sales are simply false.”

Nevertheless, the companies haven’t said whether they’ll respond to subpoenas demanding information on users suspected of seeking out abortions. Google itself can hold plenty of information on a user’s search history and location data, noted Eva Galperin, the cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  

“If tech companies don’t want to have their data turned into a dragnet against people seeking abortions and people providing abortion support, they need to stop collecting that data now,” she said in a tweet(Opens in a new window). “Don’t have it for sale. Don’t have it when a subpoena arrives.”

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