Anyone who regularly uses the web will find that a search can result in a wave of seemingly endless targeted ads based on data collection efforts – and last month, it was reported that Facebook may have taken that to a new extreme. Reveal, a Center for Investigative Journalism Journalists discovered evidence that Facebook was gathering sensitive information about users visiting websites for crisis pregnancy centres.
The findings of the report certainly raise many questions about how that data could be used, even as Meta – Facebook’s parent company – currently prohibits websites and apps that use the platform’s advertising technology from sending Facebook “sexual and reproductive health” data.
Reveal and The Markup found Facebook’s codes on hundreds of anti-abortion websites.
Social media is only one aspect of the data surveillance system. Anne Washington, an assistant professor of Data Science in the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, stated that Google’s search history is likely to be worse than any social media account.
Andrew Reifers (associate teaching professor, University of Washington Information School) stated that “the ethics of data privacy is a growing concern among the general public,” which he personally considers encouraging.
Reifers stated that over the last few decades there’s been an increase in people willing to give up their privacy to get access to the internet and quick information. I have also heard privacy specialists and cybersecurity experts say that the CIA had long attempted to achieve data surveillance on the same level and scale as Facebook. As individuals become more conscious that they can have their data used to profit by targeted advertising, or mass surveillance, this trend is beginning to shift.
The question is however how this data can be used to search for services related to abortions.
Reifers stated that while I agree with the idea of this being something to seriously think about, and I appreciate the journalist’s work in investigating the possibility that anti-abortion organizations could make use of over-shared information to target abortionists, Roe v. Wade has not marked a significant technical shift. Although it may increase public awareness about the need for additional notification of tracking information, the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and California Data Privacy Act [CDPA] already show significant changes in transparency. The ethics of this issue is a relative constant for me.”
However, it is important to remember that all individuals have the right of knowing how their data are being used and shared in an open and transparent way.
Reifers said that it is difficult for tech companies to give a simple overview of the sharing of data with individuals due to modern web apps and other interconnected services. However, this is no excuse. Reifers stated that if a company receives data (or worse, requires) from users, they should allow the user to see what it will do with this data. It is common to blame and take responsibility for technical issues that do not accept the data at first. This poses a significant problem.
This raises the question of what legal implications this might have.
Washington stated that “new laws that are based on Dobbs’ decision will be difficult to prosecute if they were not for current information collection practices.” The new laws can now be used to prosecute failed pregnancies that are connected with planning, malicious intent, and/or premeditation. Digital evidence can be used to prove intent to terminate a pregnancy. Tech industry gives prosecutors access to bulk data on our text, posts and searches queries, which allows them to view us in a way we are unable.
Users may see targeted ads in waves from certain groups.
Reifers stated that targeted advertising is possible and that it’s likely that pro-abortion groups use the moment to send targeted ads to people and possibly fear-mongering. However, law enforcement would not be able to access this information against those seeking abortion.
The social media platforms also have the right to safeguard user data. Users’ search histories won’t be given to authorities.
Washington stated that the tech industry might require law enforcement officials to set a higher standard in requesting Dobbs related data. One suspicious neighbor shouldn’t be sufficient to call the police and start a criminal case demanding access to someone else’s whole account.