This week, the US Supreme Court overturned a landmark decision from 1973. “Jane Roe” had filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas, claiming that banning abortions was unconstitutional. Regardless of your opinions of abortion, this is a discussion we need to have because the Supreme Court ultimately ruled 7-2 that the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteed a right to privacy, which included privacy over a woman’s body. In fact, the exact quote was “This right of privacy….is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether to terminate her pregnancy.” (Source). So this isn’t just about abortion, this decision has the possibility (probability, I would argue) to impact privacy on a long-term, national level. And that’s why I want to talk about it today. So put aside your political opinions for just a moment, and let’s talk about the impact of this decision.
The Direct Privacy Connection
With the overturning of Roe v Wade, abortion decisions must now be made at the state level. This means that in about half the US, abortions are now essentially illegal unless the life of the mother is at risk (many of these states do not provide exceptions for cases of rape or incest). This has thrown much of the US into a state of panic because of mass surveillance: it’s long been no secret among groups like Privacy International, EFF, and even a horde of mainstream news outlets that “period trackers” – like pretty much every other mainstream app on earth – collect vast amounts of data (more than they actually need) and submit it back to third party advertisers and data brokers who track people. Couple this with the US government’s long standing penchant of simply buying data from third parties to circumvent the red tape of court orders and due process and we have now entered a dystopian but 100% possible (and I would argue “likely”) scenario: the weaponization of data to hunt down and persecute people.
I have long said that if the data you collect would be dangerous in the wrong hands, you shouldn’t collect it. Likewise, I have also long said that “I have nothing to hide” is an absolutely insane argument because laws change. What’s legal today is not tomorrow. Unfortunately, I was ahead of my time. The data we’re collecting today can be weaponized in the future. Data that didn’t matter last week – like where you went – matters now. The Supreme Court has decided to weaken protections, and this case isn’t just about abortion. The decision was directly predicated on privacy: “you have a right to privacy from the government.” With that decision no longer valid, privacy protections in the US have taken a hit, and every blow that weakens privacy makes room for further losses in the future. Maybe you’re anti-abortion. In this case, I don’t think that matters. You may think this case was a win, but that trophy comes with heavy strings attached. Go ahead and quote me: the reduction in privacy protections that occurred this week will go beyond reproductive rights and be used to weaken other rights in other areas, probably in some that affect you negatively. This was not what you wanted. With the rampant, obscene overcollection and sharing of sensitive data, the price will be paid in other areas, and it will be expensive.
It is with this in mind that I urge us all, now more than ever, to take our data seriously regardless of if or how this ruling has directly impacted you. Last week, researching abortion for any reason didn’t matter legally, and now it might. In the future, wanting to understand a particular medical or mental health issue could cost you health insurance or certain rights. The BDSM community has long struggled with the fear of having their children taken away because of their lifestyles. I personally could easily see a future where a quick Google search to better understand depression could be used to deny you a firearms license, or where researching Russia’s narrative of the war in Ukraine could be used to restrict your travel or financial purchases. Maybe today that sounds insane. The idea that abortion rights were going to be rolled back sounded insane to most a year ago. Maybe I’m wrong, but are you willing to take that risk? Your innocent data today can be used against you tomorrow. Why risk it?
Regardless of what you’re searching or why, I have some practical tips for everyone moving forward in a world where your data can be weaponized against you at some point in the future.
1. Encrypt and erase everything. You’ve got to stop using unprotected communications like SMS and things that identify and track you like Chrome. Use the Tor Browser (or Brave/Firefox with a VPN). Use Signal, Session, or Wire to communicate. Furthermore, set your browser to never save history or cookies, and set your messenger to automatically erase messages (hence why I suggested those three specifically). You should also switch to a privacy-respecting search engine that doesn’t try to track you. I personally use Brave, but DuckDuckGo, and Startpage are popular options, as well as Whoogle and SearX. Some of these even have onion versions for Tor users that can provide additional protection.
2. Check app permissions. It’s unrealistic to ask people not to have phones at all (if you can swing that, kudos to you). However, you should absolutely check all the apps on your phone right now. First off, delete the ones you don’t actually need or use regularly. For the ones you decide to keep, be sure to check the permissions. Does Tinder need location data access all the time, or only when using it? Does that game really need access to your contacts? Disable any permissions the app doesn’t actually need. I have some additional suggestions and information here. It should also go without saying that you should probably start checking the privacy policies and look for apps that either don’t collect data, or only collect data they actually need (for example, not location data). A great place to start is AlternativeTo.
3. Ditch the phone altogether. Of course, the best option is to simply not have a phone. While this is not feasible for most 24/7, it can easily be done in specific scenarios and there are two I want to highlight. First, research. Do not research sensitive stuff on your phone. Phones are incredibly locked down for security reasons, and they are very invasive by their nature. For these reasons, it’s best to use a computer where you can restrict the data collected easier and have stronger protections from your browser and VPN. Tor browser on a hardened computer will always be more private than Tor browser on an iPhone, in my opinion. Second, travel. If you’re going somewhere sensitive, leave the phone at home. If you take it with you, there will be a record of you going to that place. Trust me, you can live without it for a few hours. I am not convinced that airplane mode is enough for this purpose, I’d leave it altogether. (Note: this applies to anyone around you. If your friend or partner gives you a ride to your appointment, they could be tracked, too.)
4. Communications. Most places require you to make an appointment. For this, I recommend using an encrypted email provider as they will not be able to disclose your email contents even with a court order. Certain sensitive, one-time appointments may warrant making a new inbox altogether.
5. Payments Digital payments – like your debit/credit card, Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, etc – all leave a trail. Instead, you should always opt for cash. If for some reason your provider accepts cryptocurrency, please also note that Bitcoin is not private by default. I recommend Monero instead. If none of these are accepted, try to buy prepaid cards using cash.
While this information – at the time of writing – may be most relevant to those seeking certain forms of healthcare, I urge you not to ignore it if this doesn’t affect you. Like I said earlier, the Roe v Wade decision is about more than abortion. Our privacy rights in America have been weakened, and right now the only thing protecting most of us from data abuse as it is are some flimsy laws and empty promises from companies who value profit above privacy. This particular decision may not impact you right now, but I’m willing to bet that in the future others stemming from this will. So again, even if you’re anti-abortion or unaffected, I encourage you to heed this as a wake-up call and start valuing your privacy. Your data may be weaponized next. Protecting yourself is easier than you think.