Most apps devoted to reproductive health have done little to prepare for what to do if law enforcement comes looking for user information, a new survey has found.
The survey, conducted by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which also owns the Firefox browser and advocates for a healthy internet, found that only one of 25 apps that track users’ periods, their pregnancies or their fitness have clearly written policies that explain the specific scenarios in which they’d turn over user data.
While the types of data such apps hold typically haven’t been used in abortion prosecutions, privacy experts say such companies should have clear policies before law enforcement asks for the data.
Pregnancy data has become a hot-button issue in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had made abortion access a federally protected right.
Jen Caltrider, who led the Mozilla study, said the other 24 apps either relied on vague assurances or wouldn’t clarify their policies.
“When a company says they might share your personal information if there’s a chance of harm to the user or others — does a fetus count? It gets very gray,” Caltrider said.
In many states, it can be confusing what exactly can constitute a criminal abortion. Many reproductive rights advocates called for people to delete period-tracking apps for fear they could be used against users.
In known cases that relied on digital evidence to prove abortion-related crimes, prosecutors tended to rely on unencrypted conversations to prove that suspects had conveyed to others that they had sought out and had abortions.
In a recent criminal abortion case in Nebraska, which was launched before Roe was overturned and is still ongoing, prosecutors acquired unencrypted Facebook messages in which a woman is alleged to have messaged her then-underage daughter about how to take pills for a medical abortion. In a sworn affidavit used as evidence, the detective who investigated the case also said he obtained evidence that the daughter had previously been pregnant, although he didn’t clarify how he confirmed that.
The detective served Facebook with a warrant. Like almost all tech companies, Facebook turns over the information it stores about users if it’s legally compelled to.
In some cases, however, companies don’t even require a warrant before they hand over user data to police. Amazon, for instance, has a policy of turning over Ring camera video to police in emergency situations involving “imminent danger” and when “there is insufficient time to obtain a court order.”
Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital rights, said that while protecting communications is the most urgent privacy need for people who seek abortions, apps that track reproductive health should also start taking better care of users’ data.
“I really do want all industries to improve their practices, because I think that if we cut off the kind of data that law enforcement can easily get from Meta or a telco, they will start shaking the trees and sending warrants to health-tracking app makers,” Galperin said.
“It is good for companies to change their practices now, because change takes time. Companies are giant ships, and turning them around is slow work. So they need to start now or they will be unprepared when the warrants start arriving,” she said.