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How Anti-Abortion Forces Are Invading Your Privacy

| Reproaction

By: Kylie Cheung

Last year, Missouri Director of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) Dr. Randall W. Williams testified that he has effectively been tracking the menstrual cycles of patients of the state’s only abortion provider. [1] Missouri’s health department operates under the auspices of a vehemently anti-choice state government, making what abortion rights advocates believe to be ideologically motivated allegations of health and safety violations. In the process, Missouri’s DHSS collected patient medical records, which Williams’ office then used to create a spreadsheet of patients’ menstrual cycles in what he claimed was an effort to track “failed abortions.” Reproaction has been a leader in calling for Randall W. Williams to resign and you can sign our petition here.

The revelation that an anti-choice state government has been tracking patients’ menstrual cycles has created justified outrage and safety concerns across the country. It’s important to understand that this is part of a broader issue among not only anti-abortion politicians like Williams, but also anti-abortion organizations and activists across the country. For some time anti-abortion groups have been invading user privacy and collecting personal information in order to further their anti-abortion agenda, including through period tracking apps.

In July, Privacy International reported the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International had created a “data-intensive content management system” to compile and consolidate personal health data of patients from anti-choice pregnancy centers across the country. Heartbeat International has allegedly shared patients’ personal health data with what they say is nearly 2,700 affiliate organizations and partners across the country. [2] And it’s not just Heartbeat International: a medical software company that services fake clinics called eKyros has also been rumored – via an anonymous tip sent by a self-described former eKyros employee – to have shared personal health data of those whose information is managed on their software. [3], Additionally, the extremist Susan B. Anthony’s List’s political networking app has also been reported to have collected and shared users’ contact information and other data with conservative partners. [4]

In June, it was reported that a prominent anti-abortion and anti-birth control hedge funder had bankrolled the fertility app Femm, in which an estimated 100 million users store data about their sex lives, menstrual cycles and personal health in general. [5] According to a study by BMJ, 19 out of 24 personal health apps the company researched shared user data with companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, while Bloomberg reported several fertility apps had raised a combined $350 million since launching, largely through data collection and sharing. [6, 7]

The collaboration between anti-abortion groups with fertility and personal health apps is concerning for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that research has shown that  use of what anti-abortion advocates call “natural family planning” as a means of birth control has led to up to 24 unplanned pregnancies for every 100 women per year. [8] Collection of people’s menstrual cycles by anti-abortion state officials as well as anti-abortion organizations is not only a gross overreach, but is also dangerous.

Anti-abortion groups and fake clinics have notoriously escalated their online presence, promoting misleading websites that entrap vulnerable pregnant people by implying their clinics offer abortion care. They’ve also famously found ways to dox — or share private, personal information in order to harass and encourage further harassment against its targets — abortion clinic workers, volunteers, and advocates, along with tracking personal information like license plates and whereabouts. [9] Now, research about anti-abortion groups’ use of data collection to track periods and surveil people’s pregnancies and reproductive health decisions reflects the ongoing invasion by the anti-abortion movement into people’s personal lives, while taking advantage of the latest technology. The digital age requires a heightened level of caution to protect ourselves from overreach by the anti-abortion movement — and innovation and collaboration between reproductive health advocates to fight back.

Sources

  1. https://www.vox.com/2019/10/31/20939890/missouri-abortion-clinic-hearing-periods-roe-wade
  2. https://rewire.news/article/2019/08/08/how-anti-abortion-organizations-are-exploiting-personal-data/
  3. https://cpcwatcher.blogspot.com/2010/07/note-from-former-carenet-employee.html
  4. https://campaignforaccountability.org/campaign-for-accountability-calls-on-apple-google-to-remove-anti-choice-apps-from-their-platforms-2/
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/09/app-creep-and-the-dark-side-of-sharing-private-date-on-our-phones
  6. https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/data-sharing-by-popular-health-apps-is-routine-and-far-from-transparent/
  7. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-24/how-period-tracking-apps-are-monetizing-women-s-extremely-personal-data
  8. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/fertility-awareness
  9. https://jezebel.com/pro-life-activists-are-tracking-license-plates-of-abort-1620983363
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