More than 2.5 million unwanted pregnancies were reported in the US between 2014 and 2019. Many of those women likely read pregnancy articles online, browsed the Planned Parenthood website, triple-checked their period log, or confided in their best friend via FacebookMessenger. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned this summer, as the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion indicates, these common online practices could become evidence of criminal intent on the part of women who choose to abort.
In states like Texas, Missouri and Louisiana, a woman’s future may soon depend on whether she can keep her pregnancy a secret. But technology companies have designed the digital world we live in to optimize tracking of personal data for ad revenue, making privacy nearly impossible.
I should know.
In 2013 I I hid my pregnancy from the internet. For nine months, my husband and I maintained an elaborate ruse involving special browsers, social media secrets, and cash transactions. I bought everything baby related with cash, declined loyalty card discounts and coupons so my purchases wouldn’t be tracked like the teenager whose father found out she was pregnant after mailings addressed to your home were sent. I even linked a new Amazon account to an anonymous email address. I then financed it with gift cards and sent the purchases to an Amazon locker that I accessed under a pseudonym. The result: no sale of my precious mom data to the highest bidder. No unsolicited catalogs and formula samples. There are no diaper ads online.
And I didn’t stop after our baby was born. I have upheld our Internet privacy law for nine years. My tools have improved: I now use Hill — a privacy-oriented browser that routes traffic through foreign servers — on my phone, private browsing and Firefox “containers” that restrict my logins to a single tab, single-use credit cards from privacy.com and secure messaging systems such as Sign. But I’m still that mom who stands in line at Target as I feed bill after bill into the payment machine, all for a Harry Potter Lego set.
I wish I could tell her that anyone can hide a pregnancy. But it is not easy. A colleague who tried to replicate my experiment was unsuccessful: Seven months later, an online gift registry gave her away.
And while privacy tools are better now, current detection systems have also improved. They are even more covert and ubiquitous and include browser fingerprinting, cashless payments, and “smart” speakers that listen at home. you can’t use an app to track your menstrual periodbut if your smartwatch tracks changes in basal body temperaturegame over.
Law enforcement across the country has also stepped up your access to consumer data. Sociologist Sarah Brayne has shown that even pizza delivery addresses They are fair game. While your mobile phone feels private, between tracking apps and cloud services, it’s easy for police to gain access to personal digital traces if you’re under suspicion.
Many people will not be able to hide their transactions like I did. I used cash and in-person transactions to shop anonymously. Women from small towns where most people know each other don’t have that luxury. I can afford to resist store coupons and loyalty programs and pay full price to avoid being tracked, and as a white woman I don’t raise much suspicion when buying high-value gift cards. But half of the women who aborted in 2014 lived below the poverty lineand black and latin women see higher proportions of unexpected pregnancies. For disadvantaged women, keeping prenatal purchases private is yet another burden.
Ultimately, a large part of what made my experiment successful was not the technology at all. I planned my pregnancies and my experiment. But the statistics show that almost half of all recorded pregnancies they are not planned. The millions of women who will be surprised by a pregnancy in the coming years may find themselves sabotaged by personal data that has already been collected before they miss their period.
Privacy-oriented technologies continue to be of great help, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has even published a Fast guide for women and abortion providers in need. That’s a good start. But it is wrong to suggest that we can solve this problem if we choose the right tools.
Our current digital world has made it almost impossible for women to keep a pregnancy private, all in the name of personalized advertising. Among the myriad fights ahead, we must push tech companies and governments to work quickly to protect women’s reproductive data, regardless of whether that data comes from search histories, apps, or other sources. Our digital trails should never be used to criminalize those of us who need to make an important decision, in private.
I had a choice. Maybe not.
Janet Vertesi is a science and technology sociologist who works on digital privacy issues. She is a professor at Princeton University.
This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.