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If abortion is made a crime, will Microsoft, Amazon and other big data players cooperate with police?

Renata Geraldo, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

In a moment when dozens of states are poised to curtail abortion access, Washington has been put forward as a safe harbor for reproductive rights.

From Gov. Jay Inslee to health care providers to the largest Seattle-based employers, leaders in the state have committed to ensuring that abortion will be available even if state legislatures elsewhere criminalize it. Pregnant people denied care in their home states will continue to find it in Washington.

But privacy advocates now warn that authorities in other states may use data collected by Washington's big tech companies to target people who travel here to terminate their pregnancies.

Law enforcement, for example, could use data collected by Microsoft, Amazon and other tech players to identify people who traveled to Washington to terminate their pregnancies.

Companies often collect users' locations, measure how much time they spend at each spot and record their search histories. The data itself is anonymized, but privacy advocates say it is possible to piece it together using data patterns. Some data brokers include analyses.

Though privacy activists have long warned that too little has been done to protect the massive amounts of data collected by Big Tech, the leaking of a Supreme Court draft opinion indicating the court is poised to throw out prohibitions on excessive state-level abortion restrictions has elevated their concern.

 

Lawmakers in other states, including Missouri, appear ready to criminalize abortions, even those provided out of state.

"In a post-Roe world, service providers can expect a raft of subpoenas and warrants seeking user data that could be employed to prosecute abortion seekers, providers and helpers," according to an article co-authored by Corynne McSherry. McSherry is the legal director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates for digital civil liberties.

In late May, over 40 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter asking Google and Apple to stop collecting what they saw as unnecessary user location data to prevent people who have obtained abortions from being identified. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Pramila Jayapal, both Washington Democrats, signed on to the letter.

"While Google deserves credit for being one of the first companies in America to insist on a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that is not enough," the letter said. "The only way to protect your customers' location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place."

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