The Office of the Attorney General issued a consumer alert in June 2022 about protecting your data privacy when seeking an abortion. We have now seen this play out in real life, as a Nebraska woman’s Facebook messages were used to charge her with multiple felonies for seeking an abortion.
Stories like these confirm the importance of data privacy. While abortion remains fully legal in the District, consumers and those seeking abortions should be aware of how others may use their data, and they should take steps to protect themselves and their data and privacy as much as possible.
To learn more about steps you can take, review our June 2022 consumer alert and, in particular, be aware of the risks of sending or receiving sensitive information—including about accessing abortion—by email, text message, or messaging app.
If you do need to discuss sensitive information in texts or online messages, use a secure, encrypted messaging app. Apps like Signal use end-to-end encryption, a method that uses cryptography to ensure that when messages pass through an intermediary, like a server, they are encoded and unreadable. Once the message has been sent, it can only be read by the intended recipient, who has the private decryption key needed to decode the message. This is important because, as in the Nebraska case, if a platform is served with a valid search warrant, it is required to turn over whatever they have. If the message is encrypted as it passes through the intermediary, the only thing the platform can send to law enforcement is the encrypted text—which is useless without the private key.
WhatsApp does currently offer secure end-to-end encryption for messages. Before you download any app, OAG recommends you look into what data the app collects from you and how that data is used. This article lays out some of the benefits and potential concerns for the most popular encrypted messaging app.
Additionally, if you need to send or receive sensitive information through social media, check if the platform you are using allows end-to-end encryption and enable it if you can. If it is not an option, consider using a platform that does allow encryption. For example, the Facebook Messenger app (but NOT the general Facebook app or the Facebook website) allows users to create end-to-end encrypted chats, but you must opt-in to encrypted messages for every chat individually, and it can only be used when the recipient is also using the Facebook Messenger app. Instructions for how to opt-in for each chat can be found here for iOS and here for Android.
Everyone should be able to access the medical care they need without interference or intrusions into their privacy, and that includes abortion access. In the District, we welcome patients who need abortion care, both residents of DC and people traveling from other states. In the process of seeking that care, it is important to keep your data privacy in mind.
For more resources, please consult OAG’s previous consumer alert about data privacy and abortion access; the Digital Defense Fund’s guide; and this Washington Post article.
The Office of the Attorney General works to educate District residents about their consumer rights, responds to individual consumer complaints, and takes appropriate law enforcement actions where possible. Learn more about your rights and how to protect yourself against scams at oag.dc.gov/ConsumerProtection.