11 Online Privacy Tips for Getting an Abortion

11 Online Privacy Tips for Getting an Abortion

Our digital data is a new battleground in a post-Roe world. Here's how to keep it safe.

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People seeking abortions in America have had to contend with an absurd amount of digital surveillance since such technology became available. We’ve seen their search histories used to accuse them of murder, their phones targeted with anti-abortion rights ads, and websites created explicitly to snitch on them and the people they trust to the police. And now that the Supreme Court seems likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, this specific sinister panopticon could soon enlarge its field of view.

So what can you do? Well, you can protest like hell and donate to support causes aimed at reproductive health. You can also get acquainted with some of the sneakier techniques that anti-abortion rights advocates and law enforcement officials have been using against abortion-seekers for years, even while Roe was still firmly in place. You can also take a few steps to shore up your own online security to make it way harder—if not impossible—for these parties to track you.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite tips here. Feel free to follow all of them or just a few, depending on the unique threats you’re facing in this weird new reality—and if you don’t know what those threats are, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great guide to help you figure that out.

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Leave the Phone at Home

Leave the Phone at Home

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Location data is a terrifying thing. Want to persecute undocumented immigrants? There’s location data for that. Want to out a closeted queer person? Yup, there’s location data for that, too. Location data was also responsible for the women being pummeled with anti-abortion messaging—in 2017, the Massachusetts Attorney General settled with a local advertising company after it was caught using ad-targeting location tech to harass women in abortion clinics. All of this is perfectly legal, which means some equally nightmarish scenario might be waiting for all abortion-seekers pretty soon.

While both Android and iPhone devices let you turn off location services—which is always a good idea—there’s still other ways brokers can get this information, be it Wi-Fi signals, cell towers, or bluetooth beacons. If you want to keep your location private from these snoopers while you’re protesting or visiting a clinic, it’s never a bad idea to swap out your regular phone with a cheap burner device, or just leave your phone at home whenever you’re out.

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Browse Privately—but Don’t Go Incognito

Browse Privately—but Don’t Go Incognito

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There’s oodles of device data—including location!—that can be sussed out while you’re browsing the web, which is why it’s a perfect time to move to a privacy-preserving browser. And you have plenty to pick from.

The Tor browser is the gold standard in that regard, since it both strips your web history of any identifying intel and bounces your traffic across different nodes across the globe, obfuscating your IP address from anyone that might want to spy on it. But those relays also make web browsing a bit of a slow, laggy process. If you’d prefer a private browser with more speed, Brave is an excellent choice.

What you shouldn’t do is just open your browser’s incognito mode and call it a day—at least not until Google closes out a lawsuit that alleges that the tech giant continues to track users while they’re browsing incognito.

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Use an Encrypted Chat App

Use an Encrypted Chat App

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There’s a reason that encrypted messaging apps are a mainstay on the phones of journalists, activists, and protestors around the world: they’re easy to use and disguise your messages while in digital transit, which means there won’t be any bad guys (or data brokers) snooping on your messages. While there’s plenty to choose from, Signal is a fan favorite for its ease of use, and the fact that it lets you wipe your message history on the regular—which means that even if the feds swipe your device, they won’t see anything you’ve said.

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Delete Any Reproductive Health Apps

Delete Any Reproductive Health Apps

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Early last year, the fertility app Flo settled with the FTC after it was caught sharing users’ sensitive health information with companies like Facebook, Google, and a bevy of marketing firms. Flo’s not necessarily unique in that regard: researchers have found plenty of other popular apps in the reproductive space freely sharing users’ data for profit, with minimal oversight from anyone. The country’s most significant health privacy law, HIPAA, doesn’t apply to apps or websites, which means the only thing stopping them from sharing your deets is, well, a change of heart (or an FTC suit).

Even if you don’t necessarily tell these apps that you’re planning on an abortion, the folks getting data from these apps can easily suss that out by other means. Just to be on the safe side, you’re better off deleting these apps, ASAP.

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Disable Your Device’s Ad ID

Disable Your Device’s Ad ID

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Every phone comes baked with a preset identifier meant to better target ads inside the apps a person downloads and on the sites that they visit. As you’d expect, there’s a lot of data about you and your browsing history in there—which is why these IDs are quickly becoming a go-to tool among prosecutors looking to convict people on a wide range of charges. Thankfully, it’s not hard to keep your ID a secret: the Digital Defense Fund included a full guide as part of its abortion privacy tipsheet.

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If You’re Gonna Search, Do It Privately

If You’re Gonna Search, Do It Privately

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Photo: DuckDuckGo

Just like the data gleaned from your browsing behavior, data from your search history is a boon to law enforcement officials and to Google, which owns the most popular search engine on the planet and is more than willing to hand that data over. Suffice to say, you shouldn’t be using for sensitive searches. Instead, check out our handy list of privacy-forward search alternatives like DuckDuckGo, MetaGer, and the awesomely named SwissCows.

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Scrub Those Photos

Scrub Those Photos

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If you’re going to take photos anywhere—outside a clinic, at a protest, or in your own dang house—it’s going to come with a digital trail of its own: details like when and where a photo was taken, and who was snapping said photo, are all part of the metadata that comes packaged with your online images. Naturally, bad actors can use this intel to track you down. If you’d rather purge these pictures before they gets into the wrong hands, there’s a bunch of tools that can help you do it. ExifTool, for example, is a free, open-source option for photos on your desktop, Metapho is great for iOS pics, and Scrambled Exif is built for Android.

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Be Facial-Recognition Ready

Be Facial-Recognition Ready

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Like it or not, facial recognition is everywhere, and police are going to continue relying on the tech no matter how many times it obviously flubs a criminal investigation. Thankfully, folks are constantly coming up with new ways to circumvent these systems; you can direct laser pointers at a given camera, you can wear specially-designed sunglasses, or you can just wear the same face masks that protect you from the coronavirus. Just to be safe, you should also cover any identifying bits before you go out—if you’ve got unique tattoos or unusually colored hair, now’s not the time to flaunt them.

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Set up an Anonymous Social Account.

Set up an Anonymous Social Account.

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Despite most social networks barring the practice as part of their terms of service, private companies and government contractors have both been caught scraping platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to monitor the trends and topics bubbling up on each. Folks that are trying to stay under the radar should create a new, anonymous account on these platforms that isn’t under your birth name or your usual email address and isn’t tied to your specific phone number—use a VoIP line, if you need to. The EFF also has a load of other social-specific tips for those posting on the front lines.

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... And an Anonymous Email

... And an Anonymous Email

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Photo: Protonmail

Do we need to say more? Even if you don’t ditch your usual email provider for good, you can always sign up for a free ProtonMail account, which is loaded with all the privacy goodies that Google lacks: it’s end-to-end encrypted, it doesn’t log your IP address, and you can set an expiration date for the emails you send. You don’t even need to offer any personal details when you sign up!

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Get Creative With It

Get Creative With It

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For as long as people have been seeking abortions, they’ve been coming up with clever ways to keep that fact under wraps. Code words and clever turns of phrase let reproductive health advocates talk about the issue out in the open, while those using health-related apps have turned to purposely fumbling the data they give in order to confuse any third parties who might be snooping. Aside from bunk data, activists have flooded anti-abortion sites with Shrek memes, fake tips, and obvious spam. And frankly, they have the right idea. The least we can do is have a bit of fun while fighting back.

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