Imminent abortion law changes raise digital privacy concerns for clinics

As the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that enshrined the constitutional right to abortion nearly 50 years ago, some abortion providers are rushing to take precautions to protect their communications and patient data, fearing that the information cannot be used in future prosecutions.

Others are already a step ahead of them. Mia Raven, director of policy at Reproductive Health Services, a clinic in Montgomery, Alabama, said her clinic operates almost exclusively on paper. It’s a strategy she says is aimed at ensuring patient privacy.

“There are literally no computers in this clinic unless I bring my laptop from home,” Raven said.

Other women’s clinic workers in the United States who spoke to NBC News said they were taking a variety of precautions, from using encrypted messaging apps to choosing Zoom meetings and phone calls over e-mails and SMS with the aim of leaving less electronic trace.

These moves are in part due to uncertainty about the various state laws that could come into effect if Roe v. Wade is overruled, which could happen this year when the Supreme Court hands down its decision in a pending case in Mississippi. A draft opinion that would overthrow Roe was leaked early last month, which the court confirmed to be genuine.

For years, so-called trigger laws in 23 states restricted or criminalized abortion, but went unenforced because Roe v. Wade made them unconstitutional.

These laws have caused some women’s health professionals to worry if their communications – whether providing abortions, related medical care, or even telling patients where they could have the procedure out of the State – could be used as evidence in a criminal investigation.

Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on May 3.
Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on May 3.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

Dalton Johnson, CEO of the Alabama Women’s Center, said he is preparing for the possibility that he will be forced to close or at least drastically reduce his operations. Nonetheless, it is working to move its staff to encrypted emails when communicating and sending patient records electronically. This would minimize the chances of their internal conversations and patient medical records being easily accessed by third parties, he said.

Johnson added that he wasn’t entirely sure what would be legal in Alabama if Roe was overthrown.

“One thing we still don’t know is if we’ll even be able to help these patients because of the aiding and abetting laws,” Johnson said. “So we have to wait for the decision to be made, which is just insane.”

Gabrielle Goodrick, owner of Camelback Family Planning in Phoenix, said uncertainty about what will happen has led her staff to switch from communicating to leaving an easily accessible paper trail, such as emails and groups. Facebook, phone calls and encrypted chat apps. .

“We’re almost exclusively on Signal now, except for clinical issues, talking on the phone instead of emailing,” Goodrick said.

“I don’t foresee anything illegal,” she said. But it’s hard to say what will constitute legal behavior after Roe’s repeal, Goodrick said. “It’s confusing to know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Fears that state prosecutors will engage in harsh metadata surveillance of pregnant women — like tracking their menstrual apps — have been sparked significant media coverage following the Roe news. But in the few cases where prosecutors have charged people with abortion-related crimes based on digital evidence, prosecutors have relied on more concrete evidence such as search logs, text messages and emails. , said Cynthia Conti-Cook, tech fellow at Ford. Foundation and author of an influential study on abortion lawsuits and digital surveillance.

“Yes, there is a massive amount of digital evidence that could be used to circumstantially infer that an abortion did occur, and I think that’s what a lot of people fear and care about,” Conti said. -Cook.

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Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Supreme Court on May 3.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

But pregnant people seeking an abortion should be more careful to explicitly admit in a text that they wanted to terminate a pregnancy – especially in states where laws could equate abortion with homicide or feticide – and to hand over their phone to police who might view such a confession as intent to commit a crime, she said.

“What can they decide from a hospital medical record that you had a miscarriage? They can’t go anywhere with that. But when they have access to what you were thinking about the day, it’s gold for them,” she said.

People at risk of becoming pregnant should already consider taking steps to secure their phone and online communications, Conti-Cook said.

“Overnight there’s going to be a sea change from what I did yesterday was legal to what I’m doing tomorrow isn’t, so operationally what am I changing today It’s a really tough swing,” she said.

There are a number of online resources for people seeking abortions and medical providers to bolster their cybersecurity, such as the Digital Defense Fund

and a guide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a preeminent Internet freedom nonprofit.

Raven of Reproductive Health Services noted that clinics can’t do much but still play a crucial role.

“They already have people outside the clinic taking pictures of them, putting them on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, the nine yards,” she said. “So they should be able to feel safe once inside the clinic, that the information they share with us while inside that clinic stays in the clinic, guaranteed to go void. go.”

CORRECTION (June 8, 6:04 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misrepresented the clinic where Mia Raven works. She is the director of policy at Reproductive Health Services in Montgomery, Alabama, not the West Alabama Women’s Center.

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