Pénalisation de l’avortement aux USA: l’enjeu des données personnelles

Pénalisation de l’avortement aux USA: l’enjeu des données personnelles

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Google has announced that it will now remove from its location history data indicating that a person has visited a medical facility, such as an abortion clinic, fertility center, birth control center, etc. addiction, a weight loss clinic, or a cosmetic surgery clinic. The decision comes as this data could be used by American states banning abortion.

Following the revocation of the right to abortion by the American Supreme Court, a dozen American states immediately made this practice illegal and many others are preparing to do the same, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. In all these states, women who decide to have an abortion will be liable to be prosecuted, regardless of the reasons for their choice. And to identify them and prove “their offence”, the police and judicial authorities could rely on the countless traces collected by apps and digital devices. Many who saw digital surveillance capabilities as an abstract or limited threat to authoritarian regimes are now waking up to the danger.

The danger is not only theoretical. As an example of what could happen in states prohibiting abortion, the American site MotherJones reports the case that occurred in 2017 of a woman who arrived at a hospital in Mississippi after having terminated her pregnancy at home. Suspecting an abortion, doctors forwarded her medical records to the police, who launched an investigation. Because she voluntarily handed over her phone, prosecutors were able to look at her search history, see that she had researched an abortion drug, and use that information as evidence. She was charged with second degree murder.

Web history, menstrual cycle, location

The search history can therefore be used as evidence by the authorities, but there are countless other digital traces to suspect an abortion. Menstrual cycle tracking apps are particularly in the spotlight because of the particularly sensitive data they record. Only some of these apps ensure that data stays on the device, and many of them incorporate trackers that share certain information with third parties, according to analyzes by ConsumerReport and Atlas VPN. The authorities could also direct their investigations from geolocation data, like certain pro-life activist movements that target women who have visited clinics practicing abortion.

Atlas VPN’s analysis of trackers in menstrual cycle tracking apps.

Telecoms, GAMAM, data brokers

While US justice is already issuing warrants to claim location data or data on users’ online activity from technology companies, there is every reason to believe that the authorities will do the same in the context of investigations into abortions in the States. condemning the practice, according to India McKinney, director of federal affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The situation is embarrassing for tech companies, which display their concern for the privacy of users, but are obliged to comply with the local laws of the countries and states where they operate. It is in this context that we must read Google’s announcement, which pulls the rug out from under the feet of the authorities by deleting incriminating data likely to interest them.

But the authorities can also dispense with a mandate and circumvent the reluctance of tech giants by buying data from data brokers. The American site MotherBoard cites the example of the company Safegraph, which collects user data via third-party apps integrating its SDK in exchange for payment to the developer. To prove its point, Motherboard paid SafeGraph $160 and bought the data of people who visited any of the 600 facilities in the Planned Parenthood chain of clinics for a week. The media specifies that this is anonymous aggregated data, but that there is a risk of being able to trace people, given the small number of devices present in certain places.

When public authorities use data collected by private companies

Safegraph data has also been used in the United States in the context of the pandemic, explains Motherboard. The CDC – the American agency responsible for disease control and prevention – has thus spent 420,000 dollars to access the location data of tens of millions of telephones, in particular to monitor compliance with containment measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Covid. A job that recalls that in 2020, the Confederation obtained aggregate data from Swisscom to determine whether the population respected the ban on gathering more than five people in public spaces.

Whether monitoring health measures or investigating crimes, the interest of public authorities in the digital traces collected by private companies is in vogue. Like the European Union’s plan to require private messaging services to scan and forward suspicious content to the authorities as part of the fight against child pornography.

Faced with these developments, technology companies will have to review their practices, in particular by minimizing data, restricting trackers and being transparent about the data transmitted to the authorities. “The post-Roe world will have every tech company reviewing the amount of data it collects and asking whether it needs it, how it might be harmful and how long she wants to keep them,” comments Axios. Between the business models of the digital giants and the attempts to investigate and maintain order by governments, data protection promises to remain a battle.

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