With the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, reproductive justice activists are fearful about what this will mean for the digital privacy of people seeking abortion services, providers, and advocates. Without any federal protections, states will continue to criminalize abortions, and our digital footprints can and will be used against us.
In our present reality, our devices and apps are constantly collecting personal information about us, and we often have no control over where this data gets shared. Mass digital surveillance is a threat to all of us, but especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable to criminalization.
The criminal cases against Purvi Patel and Latice Fisher show how women of color are targeted for their reproductive choices and miscarriages—and how their digital data can be used to criminalize them. In 2013, when Patel went to the hospital for bleeding after a claimed miscarriage, she was arrested and her texts were used to charge her with feticide and child neglect. In 2017, when Fisher’s pregnancy ended in a stillbirth at home, her internet searches were used to charge her with second-degree murder.
These cases show how digital surveillance is already being weaponized against pregnant people for their reproductive outcomes. And as abortion is increasingly criminalized and our digital privacy becomes less secure, these cases will become more commonplace.
Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.
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Sex workers have been ringing the alarm on digital rights and privacy, especially since the 2018 passage of FOSTA-SESTA, which cracked down on sexual services and content online under the cover of anti-trafficking legislation. Activists for sex workers rights and digital privacy warned that the law, which holds digital platforms responsible for any content that might promote trafficking, would have dire impacts on all people’s free speech and privacy online. Since FOSTA-SESTA’s passage, personals sites have shuttered, and digital platforms have increased censorship and discrimination against sex workers and sexual content.
“With the overturning of Roe, it becomes harder to ignore the ways in which the abortion rights movement and the sex worker rights movement are inextricably linked,” said Danielle Blunt, a dominatrix and organizer with Hacking//Hustling.
“Bodily autonomy and survival are increasingly criminalized. Now more than ever, we all need the tools to more safely share harm reduction information, navigate getting our healthcare needs met, and stay connected to community.”
Sex worker organizers like Blunt are on the front lines fighting against the encroachment of digital surveillance and online discrimination. Blunt is currently working with other organizers to share knowledge across the sex worker and abortion rights movements in order to build a stronger collective movement.
“The creep of criminalization is moving online and deputizing private actors to be its eyes and ears,” Blunt and Kate D’Adamo presented during a Hacking//Hustling and Digital Defense Fund webinar on digital criminalization.
“Digital evidence is and will continue to be used to prosecute abortion and miscarriages,” Blunt told Rewire News Group. “I think that the most important thing right now is to learn how to talk about behaviors that may be criminalized.”
Digital information such as search histories, text messages, emails, credit card charges, and location tracking can all be used as evidence against pregnant people seeking abortions in states where abortion is outlawed. Blunt shared some strategies sex workers use to mitigate interactions with law enforcement and online censorship.
Keep phones off and meet in person
If subpoenaed, your smart phone or other devices can give away your location data and other personal information and communications. The best way to not be traced is to keep devices off. Having conversations in person (with trusted/screened people) is the most secure way to discuss potentially incriminating topics.
Talk through coded language
When the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation operated from 1969 to 1973 (pre-Roe), it adopted the code name “Jane,” which when requested organizers understood abortion services were needed. Because sex work is still very much criminalized and censored on some digital platforms, sex workers and activists use coded language to ensure their posts or accounts aren’t taken down, disabled, or shadowbanned.
In activist spaces and shadow economies, adopting code words can keep recorded correspondence, if subpoenaed, from incriminating you. On platforms like social media, code words can also keep mass surveillance tools like AI from flagging your speech or content.
Switch chats to Signal with disappearing messages
Using end-to-end encryption through apps like Signal keeps correspondence private and protected from third parties. Setting up disappearing messages creates an added layer of security in case you or your recipients’ devices are seized or compromised.
Sex worker activists have been raising a red flag about the Earn It Act, as it would allow the banning of encryption, as well as opening the door for more censorship and policing online.
Use more secure browsers like Tor for sensitive searches
In both Patel’s and Fisher’s cases, their online search histories were used against them. Switching to an encrypted browser, such as Tor, and using a VPN can mitigate these scenarios by anonymizing your IP address and internet activity.
Adopt “stricter digital security protocols” and create “community guidelines for how you will talk about something, how that information can or cannot be shared and sticking to those shared values,” Blunt said. “Digital security is a form of community care and it works best when we are all taking care of each other.”
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that articles like these are public online and accessible by law enforcement, so utilize these strategies with caution and care. Clear your browser history if you have any concerns your browsing data may get into the wrong hands or be used against you in a criminal case.
Every time criminalization increases, there is a lot of fear and a lot of desire for information that will make people “safe.” Please, please remember that there is no such thing as perfect safety, there is only harm reduction. Relatedly, if you are arrested, it is not your fault
— Lorelei Lee (@MissLoreleiLee) June 27, 2022
“Every time criminalization increases, there is a lot of fear and a lot of desire for information that will make people ‘safe,’” sex worker organizer Lorelei Lee cautioned on Twitter. “Please, please remember that there is no such thing as perfect safety, there is only harm reduction. Relatedly, if you are arrested, it is not your fault.”
FOSTA-SESTA served as a model for how online platforms end up acting as “deputized private actors” by censoring sexual content and deplatforming sex workers. It isn’t far-reaching to predict a future where discussions of abortion and reproductive care are targeted similarly. This future may already be here, so be prepared.
Digital Defense Fund
Electric Frontier Foundation
If/When/How’s internet safety thread
Surveillance Self-Defense’s toolkit