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Personal data at stake in the U.S. after Roe v. Wade reversal

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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned overturned Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision that paved the way for legalized abortion in the United States, handing a historic victory to Republicans and religious conservatives who want to limit and ban the right.

« This is a sad day for the Supreme Court and the country »  reacted President Joe Biden, saying the Supreme Court’s decision set the United States back 150 years.

Searching for a family planning center on Google, discussing with a pregnant friend on Facebook, looking up clinics in a neighboring state with a different legislation… These are all digital traces that could be held against women, and their potential accomplices, in case of an abortion in some U.S. states. 

« The difference between now and the last time abortion was illegal in the United States is that we are living in an era of unprecedented online surveillance » reacted Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the NGO Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), on Twitter this Sunday.

Like her, human rights groups and elected Democrats have called on the major technology platforms to better protect personal data.

Geolocation data, which is collected not only by Google and Apple, but also cell phone operators, is also very sensitive. If some states seek to ban travel to a clinic in a neighboring territory for an abortion, and prosecute anyone who undertakes this trip, geolocation data would be crucial.

In addition, even before the Supreme Court decision, laws were passed in Texas to encourage private citizens to denounce women suspected of having an abortion, as well as those who helped them.

Finally, menstrual tracking mobile applications, whose data is extremely sensitive, are in the front line. Indeed, it is not uncommon for applications to be forced to collaborate with the police in criminal investigations. They are legally obliged to provide their data. 

Lydia X. Z. Brown, policy advisor for the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Privacy and Data Project, warns American women who have installed menstrual tracking apps. According to her, the data collected by the apps could expose people in vulnerable and marginalized communities.

In response to American women’s fears, leading period tracking apps have announced measures to strengthen privacy protections. 

The Flo app recently announced the upcoming launch of an « anonymous mode, » which erases all credentials from an account. For its part, Clue also issued a statement, promising that all of its users’ data was hosted in Europe, and that the company was therefore not required to respond to U.S. court requests for its customers’ health data. Finally, Natural Cycles announced that it was working on a method of total data anonymization.

However, it should be remembered that it is not enough to uninstall a menstrual tracking app to delete the data collected. Some apps do not store the data locally on the device, it is held on remote servers. Sometimes, you may need to contact the support team of an app’s customer service department directly to ensure that your data has been erased on the developer’s end.

As states take action in the upcoming months, we will understand the real aftermath of this historical decision on women’s rights and personal data.

By Mélissa Walehiane

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