Many of the biggest tech and social media companies in the world, including Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Snapchat, have refused to clarify whether they would fulfill or deny law enforcement requests for data that related to investigations involving those seeking or providing abortions.
The news signals the looming battleground over users’ data in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Twenty-six states are certain or likely to ban abortion in the wake of the court’s opinion published on Friday. That now ushers in a new age of abortion in America: potential criminal prosecution of people around abortions by law enforcement agencies armed with massive amounts of data.
On Friday Motherboard contacted a slew of tech companies, social networks, and telecommunications giants. They included Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Google, Amazon, Discord, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. Motherboard also contacted multiple financially focused companies, including Binance, Kraken, CashApp, Coinbase, and Venmo. Motherboard also contacted Uber and Lyft.
Do you work at any of these tech companies? Do you have information on how they are handling data with regards to abortion rights? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
Motherboard asked if each will provide data in response to requests from law enforcement if the case concerns users seeking or providing abortions, or some other context in which the agency is investigating abortions. Motherboard also asked generally what each company is planning to protect user data in a post-Roe America.
None of the companies answered the questions. Representatives from Twitter and Snapchat replied to say they were looking into the request, but they did not provide a statement or other response.
After the publication of this article Snap told Motherboard in an email that the company evaluates how it responds to law enforcement requests, and will continue to do so while balancing privacy and remaining consistent with the law.
Motherboard has reported extensively on the threat posed by location and other data companies around abortion clinic visits. In those cases, we showed how trivially easy it was for anyone to buy data related to clinic visits. Those purchasers could include anti-abortion vigilantes, who have historically shown a willingness to exploit data to target and harass those seeking or providing abortions. In response to our investigations, multiple companies such as location vendors SafeGraph and Placer.ai stopped selling such data, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren led a group of other Democratic lawmakers on a piece of legislation that aimed to ban the sale of location and health data outside of some limited circumstances. Sixteen senators also pressed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on what it was doing to protect the data of women and their health choices in response to Motherboard’s findings.
But law enforcement access to data, which is now a reality with abortion being illegal in multiple states, is a different and more complicated issue. Companies in the U.S. are generally required to respond to lawful requests for data from government agencies; a search warrant for location data related to a specific abortion clinic, for example, is a legally defensible request in those states.
In their privacy policies, the vast majority of companies say they will, unsurprisingly, provide law enforcement with access to user data in response to a valid order. Depending on the type of data, that order can come in the form of a subpoena, a search warrant, or another legal mechanism. But that’s not to say tech companies are powerless to resist such requests. Google has provided data as part of thousands of so-called reverse location warrants, which seek information on what devices were physically present at a particular place at a specific time. However, it has pushed back on the breadth of some of those requests in court. Over 40 members of Congress led by Sen. Ron Wyden and House Rep. Anna G. Eshoo also urged Google in May to limit the amount of location data it gathered to stop it being used by right-wing prosecutors in preparation for a post-Roe United States.
Tech companies can, and do, also make technical decisions on what data is available to law enforcement in virtue of how they design their products or systems. Signal, for example, is unable to provide the content of users’ communications even in response to legal requests for data because Signal as an organization simply does not have access to that information. WhatsApp doesn’t either, but the interplay of other systems sometimes makes user data available in other ways. iCloud, for example, can back up a copy of users’ WhatsApp messages, in turn making them available to a data request.
Activist group the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in an emailed statement Friday that “Companies should protect users by allowing anonymous access, stopping behavioral tracking, strengthening data deletion policies, encrypting data in transit, enabling end-to-end message encryption by default, preventing location tracking, and ensuring that users get notice when their data is being sought. And state and federal policymakers must pass meaningful privacy legislation. All of these steps are needed to protect privacy, and all are long overdue.”
The tech companies contacted by Motherboard have decided to not acknowledge their stance explicitly either way, despite the stark reality they now find themselves in; that they may provide the forensic or digital evidence that puts a person who can be pregnant in jail.
Additional reporting by Edward Ongweso Jr. and Aaron Gordon.
This piece has been updated to include a response from Snap.