Privacy, Data Security

How will Meta treat personal data after high court’s abortion ruling?

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington
Lawmakers are requesting a hearing with Meta CEO Marker Zuckerberg into the company's privacy and data-sharing policies over concerns health data was shared with law enforcement. (Photo credit: "U.S. Capitol building" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Four Democratic members of Congress are seeking answers from Meta over a recent criminal report in Nebraska revealed Meta released consumer data, including private communications, with law enforcement over abortion allegations.

In a letter to Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., Anna Eshoo, D- Calif., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., raise a host of privacy and safety concerns after claims the company shared private conversations and health data with law enforcement tied to a potential crime involving a pregnancy.

The inquiry joins a growing list of others into big tech companies following the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling and several new state laws criminalizing abortion services, over privacy and safety concerns posed by hospital data scraping, location tracking, and other data-sharing.

The Meta letter stems from reports that surfaced in early August about a 41-year-old Nebraska woman facing charges for allegedly helping her daughter illegally abort her pregnancy. Law enforcement was investigating the pair over claims of mishandling fetal remains and related charges.

Police sent Facebook a warrant in June requesting access to private messages sent on the social media platform, which it provided. The actions drew ire across the board, appearing to confirm fears raised by privacy leaders: after the Supreme Court ruling, big tech and social media data-sharing and location tracking could put the safety and livelihood of women at risk.

Facebook quickly refuted the media reports as “plain wrong.” Setting “the record straight,” a spokesperson noted that the “valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7” were sent before the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision and “did not mention abortion at all.”

Lawmakers concerned how personal data will be used post-Roe v. Wade ruling

Regardless of the outcome of the case, the lawmakers are fearful that Facebook and other tech companies will see a growing number of similar requests from law enforcement in the future in light of the Roe v. Wade upheaval “for the purpose of criminalizing those who seek abortion services.”

“The possibilities are endless and are endlessly troubling,” the lawmakers wrote. “Users rely on Facebook and your other platforms to communicate with each other about their personal lives, and therefore your company has access to highly sensitive information.” 

The lawmakers are concerned that “it’s only a matter of time before Meta is asked by law enforcement to turn over personal data of users in which they specifically cite attempting or performing abortion as the crime being investigated.” It’s also foreseeable that the company is asked to turn over conversations of those assisting loved ones seeking abortion care.

“Personal conversations about accessing health care services may now be considered evidence of crimes by law enforcement in certain jurisdictions,” they added. Given the sensitivity of the data, Facebook has been asked to shed light on how users’ sensitive data is protected on its site, while it complies with legal obligations.

“In this environment, appropriately safeguarding personal information and communications on your platform is paramount,” the lawmakers wrote.

Meta has been asked to provide a briefing to the committee by the end of the month to detail its treatment of personal data, along with its policies and procedures as it relates to sharing user data with law enforcement and other outside parties.

Lawmakers also asked for insights into the possible steps the company is taking to improve data security for its users, as well as “greater clarity as to the circumstances under which Meta would release that data to a third party.”

Jessica Davis

The voice of healthcare cybersecurity and policy for SC Media, CyberRisk Alliance, driving industry-specific coverage of what matters most to healthcare and continuing to build relationships with industry stakeholders.

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