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After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and therefore constitutional protections for abortions, how personal data related to fertility and abortion access is used, or misused, has come into increased focus.
Cell phone technology can track user data, including applications, location services and browsing history. Law enforcement has also been able to obtain and use this information in criminal cases.
The PBS NewsHour’s Digital Anchor Nicole Ellis on June 30 spoke with Electronic Frontier Foundation Executive Director Cindy Cohn about best practices for protecting data use and privacy for people amid these new abortion restrictions.
Watch the conversation in the live player above.
READ MORE: Why some fear that big tech data could become a tool for abortion surveillance
“The information that’s already on your phone or your device are, I think, where law enforcement are going to look first,” Cohn said.
She said that period tracking apps should not be of the most concern with regard to data privacy. There have already been several instances of women who had pregnancies end where their search history was included in a criminal conviction against them. And Cohn said, that’s likely just the beginning now that abortion in certain states has become illegal.
Those types of cases “were an outlier before the Dobbs decision came out,” Cohn said. “Now I think they’re a harbinger. This is what we’re going to see, a lot of women who have miscarriages be held under suspicion. We’re going to see a lot of digging into surveillance of their digital devices to discover whether it was a legitimate miscarriage or whether it was an abortion.”
There are things people can do to reduce the risk of leaving a digital footprint when seeking to access an abortion, Cohn said.
“Password protect your device so someone can’t rifle through it,” she said. “If you’re around abortion support, use an actual password instead of biometrics because of technical reasons around the 4th Amendment. Turn off the ad ID that tracks you wherever you go. If you can, get a separate device for these [abortion related] purposes,” she added.
Cohn said that the best protection will come in the form of new laws, like the My Body, My Data Act which her group advised on and supports, which creates broader privacy laws.
“[Abortion] is not the only place where people really do deserve privacy,” she said. “We need to change course from the way our digital technologies work now where they track us all the time, they keep that information forever, they sell it, and they use it in ways that we do not understand, we can’t control and we can’t do anything about.”
Nicole Ellis is PBS NewsHour's digital anchor where she hosts pre- and post-shows and breaking news live streams on digital platforms and serves as a correspondent for the nightly broadcast. Ellis joined the NewsHour from The Washington Post, where she was an Emmy nominated on-air reporter and anchor covering social issues and breaking news. In this role, she hosted, produced, and directed original documentaries and breaking news videos for The Post’s website, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Facebook and Twitch, earning a National Outstanding Breaking News Emmy Nomination for her coverage of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Ellis created and hosted The Post’s first original documentary series, “Should I freeze my eggs?,” in which she explores her own fertility and received the 2019 Digiday Publishers Award. She also created and hosted the Webby Award-winning news literacy series “The New Normal,” the most viewed video series in the history of The Washington Post’s women’s vertical, The Lily.
She is the author of “We Go High,” a non-fiction self-help-by-proxy book on overcoming adversity publishing in 2022, and host of Critical Conversations on BookClub, an author-led book club platform.
Prior to that, Ellis was a part of the production team for the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning series, CNN Heroes. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Human Rights from Columbia University, as well as a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School.
Casey is a producer for NewsHour's digital video team.
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