The case of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, return private message data to Nebraska investigators, who then used it to prosecute a teenage girl who induced an abortion, is the latest proof that our sense of privacy is an illusion.
Celeste Burgess and her mother, Jessica Burgess, have been charged with one count of unlawful acts with human skeletal remains, one misdemeanor count of concealing the death of another person and one count offense of false information. Jessica Burgess was also charged with causing an illegal abortion and performing an abortion as someone other than a licensed physician.
Authorities say Celeste was 17 years old and 23 weeks pregnant when she and her mother used Facebook Messenger to buy medication to end a pregnancy. Police were following a tip when they requested the message data from Meta, Facebook’s parent company.
Obviously, at 23 weeks pregnant, a surgical abortion would have been preferable, but that was not an option.
In a post-Roe world, we apparently also have to fear that tech companies willfully hand over private data to aid in the harassment and prosecution of citizens who act on their right to bodily autonomy.
The Burgesses have maintained throughout the inquest that the abortion produced a stillborn fetus, but they face serious charges and Celeste is tried as an adult.
What prevents Nebraska, or any other state, from using a person’s personal data to track a pregnancy?
People who have their periods remove apps that help follow our periods, so they don’t share unencrypted information about their cycles with third parties. Would the police also want to know if I flush an abnormally large blood clot down the toilet during my period? Does this information make you uncomfortable? Good. Sit in your discomfort.
Electronic Frontier Foundation Federal Affairs Director India McKinney says this type of intrusion is not only possible, but has been happening for years.
“Any data collected and stored by a private company can be accessed by law enforcement and is accessible by law enforcement,” she said. “Sometimes it’s because of a mandate and sometimes it’s just because they’re asking nicely, and sometimes it’s because they buy the data from data brokers.”
A California offer on the internet to help someone in a state like Nebraska might even be subject to Nebraska laws, though proponents of abortion rights are working on possible solutions at the state and federal level.
A President Biden’s recent executive order promotes federal funding in legal disputes in states where access to abortion is guaranteed, and urges the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services to reinforce and educate the public on protective policies Datas. McKinney said the EFF is working to encourage lawmakers to enact national data protections.
Tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Lyft and Facebook all rushed after deer was knocked down to promise he would pay the cost of any employee seeking an abortion, but remained curiously silent on how they would respond to requests for data.
We simply cannot expect our society to be dependent on technology while refusing to properly regulate the companies that control our most personal data and technologies. Anything you put on any of your digital devices is accessible to the company unless it’s encrypted, McKinney said.
“It feels personal and private because you’re on your own, but that’s not how data works.”
The case against the Burgesses reveals how far law enforcement will go in a post-deer world to enforce state abortion bans, compromising not only our rights to bodily autonomy, but also our right to privacy.