Facebook Is Dodging Questions About Surveillance of Users Seeking Abortions

Facebook Is Dodging Questions About Surveillance of Users Seeking Abortions
Photo: Esteban Felix, AP

A group of data journalists have uncovered evidence that Facebook is collecting sensitive personal information about people who visit the websites of so-called crisis pregnancy centres — clinics that are notoriously dedicated to pressuring people out of getting abortions while aping healthcare providers that do offer them.

Journalists at Reveal from the Centre for Investigative Reporting reported Wednesday that Meta had declined to answers questions about the data it collects from the imitation clinics through a tracking tool called Pixel. Currently installed on millions of websites, Pixel is ostensibly designed to help businesses target specific audiences using Facebook ads. The tracker also appears to be collecting sensitive information about users with an interest in abortion care, which the crisis centres can use to target ads and which raises questions about potentially far more nefarious uses.

There are few restrictions around who can use Pixel, meaning it is impossible for Meta, on the whole, to know what sites are using it at any given time. Any website owner can add this publicly available code to their own. Meta does, however, have explicit rules around the collection of what it calls “sensitive health information” — data that might indicate, for instance, what drugs a user takes, or whether they’ve used a particular medical device, or are diagnosed with a particular condition. An algorithm is tasked with identifying this type of information based on certain undisclosed “signals” and filtering it out of Meta’s data collection, which purportedly prevents illicit data from being ingested by its advertising platform.

Importantly, Meta also claims that it avoids collecting data related to sexual and reproductive health. But as the age-old maxim goes, context is king. As Reveal has discovered, Facebook is collecting information on users who visit certain medically relevant websites — the purpose of which is to lure pregnant people into scheduling appointments designed to shame and frighten them into disregarding abortion as a valid medical option.

With the help of a tool called Blacklight — released by The Markup in 2020 to help users detect website trackers — Reveal discovered that at least 294 crisis pregnancy centres had shared visitor information with Meta. According to Reveal, this includes information that can indicate whether someone is considering an abortion such as their interest in an appointment. So while Meta claims not to collect specific medical information, it is still possible to infer from its data that a user is, in all likelihood, pregnant. It’s a fine distinction, but one that would seem to effectively render its safeguards, at least in this instance, useless.

Reveal goes on to describe the myriad ways in which fake clinics can utilise the feedback it receives in return from Facebook:

That personal data can be used in a number of ways. The centres can deliver targeted advertising, on Facebook or elsewhere, aimed at deterring an individual from getting an abortion. It can be used to build anti-abortion ad campaigns – and spread misinformation about reproductive health – targeted at people with similar demographics and interests. And, in the worst-case scenario now contemplated by privacy experts, that digital trail might even be used as evidence against abortion seekers in states where the procedure is outlawed.

According to Reveal, Meta declined to answer specific questions about what seems to be a glaring loophole in its advertising policies. Gizmodo also sent the company follow up questions on Wednesday. It did not respond.

It’s important to note that these Pixel trackers do not apply solely to people who use Facebook. Meta also vacuums up a range of data on individuals who’ve avoided using its platforms. If you’ve ever heard the term “shadow profile,” this is what it means: When non-Facebook users navigate the web, Pixel collects information about their browsing history, which it can tie to a specific IP address. This allows of the creation of intricate profiles of individuals who, while eschewing Facebook itself, may be targeted by the company in other ways. As Gizmodo previously reported, for instance, these shadow profiles can allow Facebook to identify actual users with those whom non-users share a connection.

The likely repeal of Roe v. Wade and the introduction of new laws targeting abortion seekers in states like Texas casts Reveal’s findings in a far more ominous light today than years ago. Fears have arisen recently over the likelihood that law enforcement agencies will turn people’s personal data against them — weaponizing it to hunt down and criminally charge anyone who decides an abortion may be their best medical option.

Republicans in Missouri, for instance, have begun to pursue legislation that would essentially outlaw residents from seeking out-of-state abortions, in addition to gender-affirming care.

These fears are not unfounded. Prosecutors have, in fact, targeted women in the past following a loss of a pregnancy based solely on web browsing data — even when that data could not be presented in court. Texas’ recent law deputized any resident to bring a lawsuit against a person involved in an abortion that occurs after a period of six weeks of pregnancy. These claimants are eligible to cash in on a $US10,000 ($13,882) bounty whenever judgements land in their favour.

It’s unclear what Meta’s role in these efforts would be. It has now repeatedly ignored questions over how it would respond to subpoenas seeking data on users who’ve either had an abortion, or are simply seeking information about one online.

Democrats are now scrambling to introduce legislation aimed at banning data brokers from trafficking in people’s health and location, seeking to arm the Federal Trade Commission with $US1 ($1) billion over the next decade to crack down on violators. “The unsavoury business practices of data brokers pose real dangers to Americans everywhere,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s leading the effort, said in a statement.

Yet the reality, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, is that once Roe is tossed out, no privacy or speech protections will ever prove adequate enough. The dangers, he said, are no longer hypothetical — “They’re already here.”

In an op-ed Wednesday, Wyden, a Democratic of Oregon, described what he’s calling the “extremist playbook.” Outlawing abortion, he says, is step one. Step two is preventing pregnant people from discussion abortions online. Establishing an atmosphere of fear based on surveillance of the topic would seem an effective tool for achieving that. Step three, he writes, “is hijacking the digital tools that we depend on in modern life and using them to track down people who get abortions.”

“When abortion is illegal, researching reproductive health care online, updating a period-tracking app, or bringing a phone to the doctor’s office all could be used to track and prosecute women across the U.S.,” Wyden said.

If you would like tips on how to minimise your risk of being surveilled while seeking abortion care, read this. If you’re seeking abortion care and wish to avoid fake clinics, click here.