Facebook Is Helping Anti-Abortion Clinics Collect Highly Sensitive Personal Data

We consider privacy rights and the fight for them in a postmodern era.RoeAmerica is concerned that anti-abortion activists might use identifying data from social media platforms like Facebook to target abortion seeker. Investigative reporter Grace Oldham describes how this data is already being used by medically unlicensed “crisis pregnancy centers” that actively lure patients to discourage them from seeking abortions. Oldham’s recent report reveals that these anti-abortion clinics can misinform or worsen the reproductive health of those considering an abortion. Reveal is headlined “Facebook and Anti-Abortion Clinics Are Collecting Highly Sensitive Info on Would-Be Patients.”


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AMY GOODMAN: As states move to criminalize abortion, we’re going to look now at growing calls to protect online privacy. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As fears grow that authorities could use online data to prosecute people who violate statewide abortion bans, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has warned, quote, “those seeking, offering, or facilitating abortion access must now assume that any data they provide online or offline could be sought by law enforcement.” This comes as RevealThe Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that Facebook collects sensitive personal data on abortion seekers and allows anti-abortion organisations to use this data to target people online.

We’re going to go first to Grace Oldham. Grace Oldham is a Howard Fellow. Reveal, where she recently investigation is headlined “Facebook and Anti-Abortion Clinics Are Collecting Highly Sensitive Info on Would-Be Patients.”

We are glad you are here Democracy Now!, Grace. Let’s get this out of the way. Talk about everything, from period trackers (you know, menstrual trackers), to what people say and see online, and how it could be used against them.

GRACE OLDHAM: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much.

So, yeah, as laws are changing now across the country, there are increased warnings about the risks of how people’s data online could be used against them if abortion is criminalized in their state. So, our investigation focused on crisis pregnancy centers. We’ve been investigating crisis pregnancy centers at RevealSince months. And they’re quasi-health clinics that are run by anti-abortion organizations with the main goal to deter or delay people from getting an abortion. And because they’re not licensed medical facilities, the data they collect on people they interact with, either online or in person, isn’t protected in the same way other health data might be. And so, we were curious what’s happening to that data and how might it be used, again, as laws are changing across the country.

So we started looking at what type of ad-tracking technology these websites — these organizations use on their websites, and found that hundreds of crisis pregnancy websites across the country use an ad-tracking technology that shares information with Facebook. And, you know, as you said, it’s ultrasensitive data. It can include information such as the person’s pregnancy status, whether they are considering an abortion, and if they were scheduling an appointment for an abortion consultation. In some cases, names, email addresses, and phone numbers may also be included. You also know that this information can be a risk if abortion has been criminalized in a state or is outlawed. It can also give key indications about whether someone is considering an abortion. It is possible for law enforcement to use this information by aggregating it on platforms like Facebook. This is just one of many possible risks that data can be gathered online.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Grace, these crisis pregnancy centers, if they’re collecting basically a person’s individual medical information, even if they’re not licensed, aren’t they covered by HIPAAAre there laws that allow individuals to disclose personal data to others?

GRACE OLDHAM: Yeah, so, actually, these — most crisis pregnancy centers are not covered by HIPAA, and that’s because they’re not licensed medical facilities, and they do not charge for their services. So, because they’re not covered by HIPAAIt is not protected as well as it would be if it were through a hospital. And so, you know, that was one of our main questions in starting this reporting, is, OK, if they’re collecting really sensitive data about people, you know, online in forms asking questions like when was the date of a person’s last menstrual period, or in person, you know, ultrasound photos, the results of pregnancy tests. And so, we had started really researching what happens to that data once it’s collected by these centers.



AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But wouldn’t it be possible to at least require them to disclose to the people that are giving information that they are not licensed and that the information they’re giving can be shared with others? Isn’t there a disclosure requirement at least, or shouldn’t there be one?

GRACE OLDHAM: Yes. In some cases, the crisis pregnancy centers do mark on their websites when they are not licensed, but often that’s tucked away into — deep into a privacy policy where, you know, a person not doing like an extensive dive into the website would find it. And there was also a Supreme Court case several years ago that would have — that overturned a requirement in California for crisis pregnancy centers to state whether they are medical facilities. And so, they’re positioned now more than ever to, you know, make that not have that be as clear as some consumer protections require.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Grace, it’s reported around the country that they’ll often locate themselves next to, for example, a Planned Parenthood clinic and look like that clinic, so people get confused and are not exactly clear where they’re walking in. But I wanted to ask you about Meta — right? — the new name for Facebook. What privacy protection measures do they have in place? Did they speak to your?

GRACE OLDHAM: Right. Meta has policies to prevent the collection of sensitive data. This includes sexual and reproductive health data. And in the past several years, there’s been reporting and a state investigation which found that, you know, their advertising systems is, essentially, quite porous around the vast information that’s collected by Meta every day on websites across the country.

So, we discovered that hundreds of these crisis pregnancy centres are sharing this information with Facebook. And that Facebook is infusing that data. In response to a New York State Department of Financial Services investigation, Facebook created filtering mechanisms with several thousand key terms — I think it’s something like 70,000 key terms — that are supposed to block anything that would be considered sensitive data, although in URLs that we found with “pregnancy” or “abortion” in them, data was still collected from those sites. We sent Facebook a list asking questions about Facebook’s policies regarding data from crisis pregnancy centers. Also, whether this data would be shared with law enforcers. We didn’t get a reply to those questions. And we haven’t seen any change in our story since publication regarding whether the data from the sites we identified has been deleted.

AMY GOODMAN:Grace Oldham, Daly Barnett, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wanted to be part of this conversation. He recently published a set a digital privacy guidelines that will help both abortion providers as well as abortion seekers to protect their information. We’re going to break and then come back to this conversation. We’re speaking with Daly Barnett and Grace Oldham. Stay with us.