Op-Ed: Online privacy is nearly impossible for pregnant women
Over 2.5 million unintended pregnancies were reported in the United States between 2014 and 2019. Many of these women likely read pregnancy articles online, browsed the Planned Parenthood website, triple checked their tracker rules or confided in their best friend on Facebook Messenger. If Roe v. Wade is overturned this summer, as the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion likely indicates, these common online practices could become evidence of criminal intent by women who choose to have abortions.
In states like Texas, Missouri and Louisiana, a woman’s future may soon depend on her ability to keep her pregnancy a secret. But tech companies have engineered the digital world we live in to optimize the tracking of personal data for ad revenue, making privacy nearly impossible.
I should know.
In 2013, I hid my pregnancy from the internet. For nine months, my husband and I maintained an elaborate ruse involving special browsers, social media secrecy, and cash transactions. I bought everything baby related with cash, refusing discounts on loyalty cards and coupons so my purchases weren’t tracked like the teenager whose dad found out she was pregnant after the sending targeted letters to their homes. I even linked a new Amazon account to an anonymous email address. I then funded it with gift cards and had my purchases delivered to an Amazon locker which I accessed under a pseudonym. The result: no sale of my precious mom data to the highest bidder. No unsolicited catalogs and formula samples. No online diaper ads.
And I didn’t stop after our baby was born. I maintained our internet privacy law for nine years. My tools have improved: I now use Tor – a privacy-focused browser that routes traffic through foreign servers – on my phone, private browsing and “containers” on Firefox that limit my logins to a single tab, single-use credit cards from privacy.com and secure messaging systems such as Signal. But I’m still that mom standing in line at Target while I feed bill after bill into the self-checkout machine, all for a Harry Potter Lego set.
I wish I could tell you that anyone can hide a pregnancy. But it’s not easy. A colleague who tried to replicate my experience was unsuccessful: seven months later an online gift registry gave it away.
And while privacy tools are better now, today’s detection systems have also improved. They’re even more discreet and ubiquitous, and include browser fingerprinting, cashless payments, and “smart” speakers listening at home. You can’t use an app to track your menstrual period, but if your smartwatch tracks changes in basal body temperature, it’s game over.
Law enforcement across the country has also beefed up their access to consumer data. Sociologist Sarah Brayne has shown that even pizza delivery addresses are fair game. Although your mobile phone seems private, between tracking apps and cloud services, it is easy for the police to access personal digital traces if you are suspected.
A lot of people won’t be able to hide their transactions like I did. I used cash and in person transactions to shop anonymously. Women in small towns where most people know each other won’t have that luxury. I can afford to resist loyalty programs and store coupons and pay top dollar to avoid being tracked, and as a white woman I don’t arouse much suspicion when buying gift cards valuable. But half of the women who had abortions in 2014 lived below the poverty line, and black and Latina women see higher rates of unexpected pregnancies. For disadvantaged women, the confidentiality of prenatal purchases is another burden to bear.
Finally, a big part of what made my experiment successful was not the technology at all. I planned my pregnancies – and my experience. But statistics show that nearly half of all recorded pregnancies are unplanned. The millions of women who will be surprised by a pregnancy in the years to come risk being sabotaged by the personal data that has already been collected before they even miss their period.
Privacy-focused technologies are always a big help, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has even published a quick guide for women and abortion providers in need. It’s a good start. But it is wrong to suggest that we can solve this problem if we just choose the right tools.
Our current digital world has made it nearly impossible for women to keep a pregnancy private, all in the name of personalized advertising. Among the myriad battles ahead of us, we must push tech companies and governments to work quickly to protect women’s reproductive data, whether that data comes from search histories, apps, or other sources. Our digital traces should never be used to criminalize those of us who have to make an important decision, in private.
I had a choice. You should not.
Janet Vertesi is a sociologist of science and technology working on issues of digital privacy. She is a professor at Princeton University.