11 August 2022

Facebook=Surf Nazis

Facebook gave Nebraska law enforcement access to a 17-year-old’s private Facebook messages — and now she’s being prosecuted for having an abortion.  Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the dangers hidden in the massive amounts of sensitive and personal data collected and retained by platforms like Facebook — and how it could be weaponized against people seeking reproductive health care become real and present dangers.  Now this threat turns into a grim reality.

Most people think that their private messages are just that: private. And they would be if Facebook and other platforms actually cared enough about their users to take all of the necessary steps to protect them.

Companies like Facebook collect and store tons of personal data about users to sell to advertisers. Facebook shouldn't retain so much sensitive data — and it should use encryption so that private messages stay private. That’s the only way to ensure that police can't use this information for criminal prosecution of reproductive health care.

When asked how Facebook would protect user data for people seeking abortions, Mark Zuckerberg said that the company’s encryption would protect people from “bad behavior or over-broad requests for information.”  But by collecting and storing this data to begin with — and by neglecting to have encryption turned on in Messenger by default — he is putting users at risk.  Tech companies must do much more now to resist unjust demands from law enforcement. By limiting data collection and ensuring that private messages are actually kept private, Facebook can protect its users in a post-Roe world. Demand that Facebook protect its users and keep private messages private.

Before SCOTUS struck down Roe v. Wade in June, concerns about the digital privacy implications of abortion restrictions were mounting. Afterward, the deluge of toughened anti-abortion laws caused digital rights experts to warn that people's search histories, location data, messages, and other digital information could be used by law enforcement agencies investigating or prosecuting abortion-related cases. Many Republican-controlled states had already passed laws severely curtailing access to the procedure. But as states like Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, and others rushed to criminalize it, the potential use of personal data to find and punish people looking for information about abortion services online became even more worrisome.

That concern became reality for a careless Nebraska woman and her teenage daughter. Investigators uncovered Facebook messages between Jessica Burgess, 41, and her 17-year-old daughter in which the two discussed using medication to induce an abortion and plans to burn the fetus afterward. When first interviewed, the two told investigators the teen had unexpectedly given birth to a stillborn baby in the shower in the early morning hours of April 22. They said they put the fetus in a bag, placed it in a box in the back of their van, and drove several miles north of town, where they buried it.

In early June, mother and daughter were charged with a single felony for removing, concealing, or abandoning a body, and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting. But investigators continued reviewing private Facebook messages between the two in which Burgess tells her daughter that she's obtained abortion pills for her, and gives her instructions on how to take them to end her 24-week pregnancy. Prosecutors then added additional felony abortion-related charges against Burgess and her now 18-year-old daughter, who will be tried as an adult.


A Facebook spokesman declined to talk about the details of this case, but the company has said that officials at the social media giant “always scrutinize every government request we receive to make sure it is legally valid.” The company also said it gave investigators information in about 88% of the 59,996 times the government requested data between June and December, 2021. (CNN, Cincinnati, Texas Tribune, NPR, AP, Missouri Independent, NBC)

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