Did Meta Know It Was Giving the Cops Messages About an Alleged Illegal Abortion?

The social media giant is facing backlash for sharing private messages between a mother and daughter from Facebook Messenger with Nebraska police.

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Did Meta knowingly provide abortion information to law enforcement? Does it matter if it knew?
Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP (Getty Images)

A shocking case involving a stillborn fetus burned and buried in a plastic bag has put Meta in the hot seat after the Facebook parent provided law enforcement with private messages between a 17-year-old Nebraska teen and her mother. The mother was charged in July with performing an illegal abortion, the daughter with hiding a dead body. Meta, however, denies it knew about the political nature of the charges. The company said in a statement that the warrants it responded to “did not mention abortion at all,” which Gizmodo confirmed at least to be partially true by obtaining two warrants in the case. The warrant that targets Meta does not refer to abortion; the other does not seek any material from the social media company.

Abortion rights activists and privacy experts were alarmed after news broke on Tuesday about Meta’s involvement in the case of the Celeste Burgess, who police estimate was 23 weeks and two days pregnant when she decided to take abortion pills. Celeste gave birth to a stillborn fetus in April and coordinated via Facebook Messenger with her mother, Jessica, to burn and bury the remains, prosecutors allege in court documents first obtained and published by Vice on Tuesday.

Jessica and Celeste discussed the teen taking medication received in the mail and made plans to dispose of “the evidence” via Facebook Messenger the same month, according to the documents. “1 pill stops the hormones [and then] u gotta wait 24 HR 2 take the other,” Jessica allegedly wrote to Celeste on April 20, 2022. Celeste responded “Ok” and “Remember we burn the evidence,” the documents say. A friend of Celeste’s tipped off police to the teenager’s actions, according to court documents.

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Abortion is banned in Nebraska beginning at 20 weeks, although the procedure may be carried out if the pregnant individual’s life is in danger or if their health is severely compromised. The state’s law hasn’t changed in the aftermath of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Jessica is charged with three felonies: performing or attempting an abortion on an individual more than 20 weeks pregnant, performing an abortion without being a licensed medical professional, and removing and concealing a dead human body. Celeste is also charged with felony removal, concealment, and abandonment of a dead human body in Madison County District Court. The 17-year-old faces two misdemeanors as well: one for concealing the death of another person and another for false reporting, according to court documents obtained by Gizmodo.

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Meta Denies Knowing That Law Enforcement Was Investigating an Alleged Illegal Abortion

After multiple news outlets picked up the story (#deletefacebook was trending on Twitter yesterday), Meta issued a public statement responding to reports and public outrage on Tuesday night. The company claims that the release of the private messages and other information to Nebraska police was carried out in response to warrants regarding the “illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.” The company claims that the warrants it received “did not mention abortion at all.”

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The full text of Meta’s statement is as follows:

“Much of the reporting about Meta’s role in a criminal case against a mother and daughter in Nebraska is plain wrong. We want to take the opportunity to set the record straight.

We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The warrants did not mention abortion at all. Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”

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Although Meta noted that the non-disclosure orders surrounding the June search warrants has since been lifted, the company declined to comply with Gizmodo’s request for the search warrants it was served. Gizmodo obtained copies of two warrants related to the case from the Nebraska District Court, where the Burgess case is set to be tried. The first seeks materials from Meta; the second does not. It is not clear how many warrants Meta ultimately responded to.

The relevant search warrant requests the release of private Facebook messages as well as profile and login information of both Celeste and Jessica Burgess. That document does not mention any specifics about the content of the criminal case or the justification for the warrant. The document orders Meta to release the requested information and to not disclose the existence of the order, confirming the company’s statement.

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A police affidavit filed in support of the request for the search warrant above was first published by Vice on Tuesday and verified by Gizmodo on Wednesday. It’s not clear if Meta saw the contents of the affidavit—in addition to the search warrant, which the company would have seen—but even if the company did view it, the affidavit doesn’t explicitly indicate that the investigation pertained to an alleged illegal abortion. In accordance with Meta’s claims, the affidavit doesn’t use the term “abortion.” However, the affidavit does repeatedly reference a stillborn fetus and does use the term “miscarriage.” The language in the affidavit heavily implies the alleged victim in the case was a fetus, not a fully grown human, and that the subject of the case was an alleged illegal abortion.

Meta regularly complies with search warrants. According to the company’s self-reported data, it received 31,217 search warrants related to 48,916 users or accounts from July to December of 2021. The company says it provided law enforcement with information in 89% of those cases.

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In an email to Gizmodo, a Meta spokesperson, Erin McPike, pointed to sections of the company’s existing transparency report and policies on responding to government and law enforcement data requests.

“When we do comply, we only produce information that is narrowly tailored to that request. If we determine that a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back and will fight in court, if necessary,” Meta’s 2021 transparency report states.

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The company declined—once again—to respond to Gizmodo’s direct request for more information about how it manages information requests by law enforcement that do specifically mention abortion.

Did Meta Know What It Was Doing?

The question that remains is whether Meta knew it was providing data about Celeste Burgess’ alleged illegal abortion when it gave law enforcement the contents of her Facebook messages. The company claims it didn’t. Yet the April Facebook messages released by Meta do discuss abortion pills and destroying “the evidence” of their use, according to court documents. The company hasn’t come out to say that it would refuse to comply with a legal request for abortion-related data. The incident is a reminder of the trail of data abortion-seekers leave behind in their quests for care, which privacy experts say exposes them to a new frontier in prosecution in light of the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

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You can read the entire search warrant for yourself below.