Anyone who regularly uses the web will find that a search can result in a wave of seemingly endless targeted ads based on data collection efforts – and last month, it was reported that Facebook may have taken that to a new extreme. Journalists at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting had uncovered evidence that the social network was collecting sensitive personal information of users who visited websites for crisis pregnancy centers.
The findings of the report certainly raise many questions about how that data could be used, even as Meta – Facebook’s parent company – currently prohibits websites and apps that use the platform’s advertising technology from sending Facebook “sexual and reproductive health” data.
Yet, Reveal and The Markup have found Facebook’s code on the websites of hundreds of anti-abortion clinics.
“Social media is just one part of our data surveillance environment. The history of searches on Google is probably worse than a social media account,” said Anne Washington, assistant professor of Data Science at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
“The ethics of data privacy are a growing concern for the general public, which I personally view as encouraging,” added Andrew Reifers, associate teaching professor at the University of Washington Information School.
“For the past few decades, there has been a trend of individuals willingly forgoing their own privacy for the return of ease of use and immediate information or functionality,” said Reifers. “I have heard other cybersecurity professionals and privacy experts make off-handed comments that the CIA has long tried to accomplish data surveillance at the same scale and level as Facebook. This trend is finally starting to significantly shift as individuals are becoming more and more aware that their data can be used for profit through targeted advertising or simply mass surveillance.”
At issue however, is how that data could be used now regarding searches for abortions services.
“While I completely agree this is something we should seriously consider, and I respect the work of the journalists investigating how anti-abortion groups could use over-shared data to target abortion seekers, the change in Roe v. Wade does not mark a large technical change,” Reifers noted. “It may spark public awareness to require further notifications of tracking information, but we are already seeing the impact and significant change in the direction of increased transparency due to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Data Privacy Act (CDPA). I see the ethics of the issue as a relative constant as well.”
It is still important to noted that individuals should have the right to know how their data is being shared and or used in a clear and transparent manner.
“With the complexity of modern web applications and interconnected third-party services, it can be a difficult task for technology companies to provide a holistic simple explanation of how an individual’s data is shared, but that is not an excuse,” said Reifers. “If a company accepts or, worse requires, data from a user, then that user should be able to understand what the company will do with the data. The most significant challenge here is that we often place blame or responsibility on technical parties that are not initially accepting the data.”
There is also the concern on what this could mean legally as well.
“New laws that rely on the Dobbs decision would be hard to prosecute if it were not for current data collection practices,” Washington explained. “The new laws prosecute if a failed pregnancy can be connected to premeditation, planning, or malicious intent. The indisputable biological fact of a miscarriage can now be coupled with digital evidence to prosecute someone for intent to end a pregnancy. The tech industry lets prosecutors see us in a way that we cannot see ourselves through bulk access to our texts, posts, and search queries.”
Some users may even see a wave of targeted ads from some groups.
“While targeted advertising can be very effective and it’s highly likely that anti-abortion groups will use this moment in time to start sending targeted ads to individuals and potentially fear-mongering, it’s extremely unlikely that this data would be used by law enforcement against individuals seeking abortion,” said Reifers.
Likewise, the social media platforms will still have the ability to protect user data, and search history among users won’t likely be simply handed over to law enforcement.
“The tech industry could require law enforcement to meet a higher standard for requesting data in Dobbs-related cases,” said Washington. “One suspicious neighbor calling the police should not be enough to start a prosecution that demands access to someone’s entire account.