A Google search for a reproductive health clinic, an online order for abortion pills, a location ping to a doctor, and a text about the possibility of terminating a pregnancy could all become sources of evidence. People are constantly sharing data about their fertility online, privacy advocates say, even if they don’t realize it. Other Obvious Sources of Health Data include period tracking apps and digital check-in forms in hospitals.
“People shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything perfectly, when they’re in a stressful situation, to protect their own privacy,” said India McKinney, director of federal affairs at privacy organization Electronic. Frontier Foundation. “Privacy is a basic human right, and it should be protected by law and statute.”
Here are the basic steps anyone can take to protect personal information when weighing an abortion.
Your biggest risk factor is other people. According to Farah Diaz-Tello, senior attorney and legal director of If/When/How, a nonprofit reproductive justice organization, many cases against people who have had abortions start with people they’ve told they have. report to law enforcement.
“The biggest vector of criminalization is the healthcare system,” Diaz-Tello said. The group has studied cases against people who have had abortions since 2000 and tracked how the process generally unfolds.
When someone goes to a healthcare provider for medical issues related to an abortion, healthcare professionals can report them to the police, who can then seize their phone or computer. With a device in hand, the police can simply check the browser and text messages directly.
Diaz-Tello recommends being judicious about what information you share in an emergency room or doctor’s office. A miscarriage and self-administered abortion using pills will look the same to most healthcare providers and require the same treatment, she said.
Also limit who you tell in your own life, including your friends or family. If you are experiencing threats from intimate partners, follow these steps to protect your communications and devices.
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Chat on a secure and encrypted messaging app
When discussing your situation, use private messaging apps that use encryption. Apple’s iMessage, Meta’s WhatsApp, and Signal are all end-to-end encrypted by default, which means messages are hidden from everyone except the sender and recipient.
Remember that someone with access to your physical device can see your messages, whether they are encrypted or not. Don’t turn your phone or laptop over to law enforcement without a warrant, privacy experts advise, and turn off biometric authentication such as Face or Touch ID if you’re worried someone will force you to unlock them. Make sure your phone, tablet, and computers all require a passcode or password to use them. Avoid wearing wearable health tracking devices while managing your health.
Browse the Internet safely
Your browsing activity can put you at risk in two ways: someone seeing it on your device and someone getting it from tech or ad tech companies, said Eric Rescorla, chief technology officer at Firefox.
Always use incognito or private browsing mode on your browser to avoid leaving a trace on your own devices. When choosing a browser, opt for Safari, Firefox, or Brave, all of which have robust privacy features. Make sure all options to prevent cross-site tracking are enabled, and instead of Google, use a search engine like DuckDuckGo or Brave.
To minimize what is logged on your browsing, use a VPN or Apple’s iCloud Private Relay, which acts as a more secure VPN. Avoid using third-party apps for searches. If you want an extra layer of protection, use Tor Browser, a tool for anonymous Internet use that conceals both your identity and your location, Rescorla said.
If you use Google, make sure you’re signed out of your account and have all of your privacy settings turned on. Confirm that all abortion clinic results are real and not fake “pregnancy crisis” centers. If it’s a Google ad, there should be a small line above the site name that says “Provides abortions” or “Does not provide abortions.” The National Abortion Federation has a list of approved providers on its site.
Turn off location sharing or leave your phone behind
Some apps collect your location throughout the day and night and share it with third parties, including data brokers, who sell that data to anyone who wants to pay. To turn off location sharing on an Apple device, go to Settings → Privacy → Location Services and toggle the slider to show gray. (Note that this will prevent location-dependent apps, such as Uber or Maps.) On an Android device, go to Settings → Location and toggle the switch to “off”.
Unfortunately, turning off location sharing won’t stop your mobile carrier from collecting your location. Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, said a Faraday bag, which blocks electromagnetic fields, could help in cases where someone wants to keep their phone on them but prevent tracking of the location by service providers.
To really hide your location, the best thing to do is leave your phone at home or turn it off completely, McKinney said. You can also use a temporary “burner” phone. Don’t add any of your accounts, connect to your home WiFi or turn on Bluetooth, she added.
Maximize your privacy settings
To ensure that your phone or social media sites collect as little data as possible, lock down your privacy settings. You can find a list of the biggest app and device options in our Privacy Reset Guide.
A guide to every privacy setting you should change right now
Avoid period-tracking apps
Trusting any app with sensitive medical information is a risk, especially if it’s not covered by HIPAA requirements. Each period tracking app has different privacy practices, and understanding the nuances can be tricky. A password-protected spreadsheet or paper calendar will be more useful.
If you decide to delete your policy-tracking app, consider submitting a data deletion request as well, said Alan Butler, executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Some companies only honor these requests from people in California due to state privacy law, but others accept requests from anywhere.
“The power of the state and federal government to obtain data right now is incredibly broad,” Butler said. “We haven’t seen new limits on access to government data in decades, which means the laws…have weakened as technology has evolved.”
Limit where you share health information
Your dentist and even your workout instructor can give you forms asking if you are pregnant. If you’re not comfortable sharing, say so and reserve this conversation for a doctor you trust.
Recording software at your doctor’s office may have privacy flaws, The Washington Post reported. A consent form from recording software maker Phreesia, for example, gives them permission to use your data for marketing purposes. Select “no” on any data sharing prompts you see.
Push your healthcare and insurance providers about what they do with your information, such as date of last period or pregnancy status. Where is it recorded and stored, is it encrypted and how long does it keep? Review each document you sign to see if you are waiving your rights to your information or allowing it to be shared with other parties.
Be aware of physical surveillance technology
In some cases, law enforcement can extract data from license plate readers or facial recognition software systems that have been strategically placed along state borders, Granick said of the ACLU. If you need reproduction services, you may want to consider other modes of transportation than driving your own car, for example.
“People shouldn’t give up, even though it’s hard and may seem like a lot,” Granick said. “People should take advantage of what they can do while pushing the powers that be to do more.”