Facebook Shares Abortion-Related Chats With Police

In response to a mother-daughter case in Nebraska, digital rights groups are calling for end-to-end encryption of all conversations conducted on the social media giant’s  platform.

Facebook developer’s conference 2017. (Anthony Quintano, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

By Julia Conley
Common Dreams

Digital rights advocates this week said an abortion case in Nebraska illustrates how powerful tech companies like Facebook could play a major role in prosecutions of people who self-manage abortions as more states ban the procedure and called on the social media platform to reform its privacy policies to protect users.

The case in Nebraska centers on a 17-year-old girl and her mother, Celeste and Jessica Burgess, who sent messages on Facebook regarding plans to terminate Celeste’s pregnancy prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned in June.

According to court documents posted by Vice Tuesday, a friend of Celeste’s called the police after seeing her take the first of two abortion pills. The teenager, who is being tried as an adult, was estimated to be 23 weeks and two days into her pregnancy. Abortion is legal until 22 weeks of pregnancy in Nebraska.

Celeste’s fetus was stillborn shortly after she took the pills, according to the court filings.

Jessica Burgess was charged last month with three felonies and two misdemeanors and Celeste was charged with one felony and two misdemeanors, all related to performing an illegal abortion, concealing the fetus’s body and providing false information. They both pleaded not guilty.

After receiving the tip from Celeste’s acquaintance, Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigations Unit obtained a warrant to access digital communications of both Celeste and her mother. The police seized six smartphones and seven laptops from the family and ordered Facebook to turn over messages between the two.

Facebook stores user information on its servers and messages sent through Facebook Messenger are often visible to the company. In order to use end-to-end encryption, which makes messages unreadable to Facebook and anyone who requests access, users have to be using the mobile device Messenger app and have to select a setting to mark the conversation as “secret.”

(Simi, PixaHive.com)

Facebook told NBC News that the warrant it was ordered to comply with said nothing about a user discussing abortion care and that police told the company the case they were investigating involved “a stillborn baby who was burned and buried.”

While the alleged details of the Burgess case are distinct from the majority of medication abortions — which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the first trimester of pregnancy — digital rights advocates warned that the current policies of companies like Facebook will make people vulnerable to prosecution as Republican legislators impose abortion bans.

“If companies don’t want to end up repeatedly handing over data for abortion investigations, they need to rethink their practices on data collection, storage, and encryption,” Jake Laperruque, deputy director of surveillance at the Center of Democracy and Technology, told NBC.

At The Verge on Wednesday, James Vincent wrote that

“by highlighting the detail that the warrant didn’t mention abortion, Meta [Facebook’s parent company] seems to be attempting to distance itself from criticism that its current data-collection policies can and will be used to prosecute women in the U.S. who have illegal abortions.”

Rights groups including Fight for the Future say the company must make end-to-end encryption the default for all conversations that happen on its platform.

“Meta has the ability to make end-to-end encryption the default for all of its messages, ensuring that no one but the message senders — not even people at Facebook or Instagram themselves — can access private conversations,” Caitlin George, managing director of Fight for the Future, told The Verge.

“Until Meta gives up surveilling private messages and begins protecting its users with end-to-end encryption, it remains complicit in the surveillance and criminalization of pregnant people,” George added.

The Burgess case gained national attention as reproductive justice and legal advocacy group If/When/How released a report on the criminalization of self-managed medication abortions, finding that although “only seven states historically criminalized self-managed abortion” — and only Nevada, South Carolina, and Oklahoma do now following a push by advocacy groups —”overzealous police and prosecutors have circumvented the law’s parameters” in at least 26 states.

In 43 percent of the 61 cases If/Now/When examined, police considered homicide or murder charges.

While “there has been a lot of focus on period tracker apps in recent months,” wrote study co-author Laura Huss, “what we’ve seen is that even less sophisticated forms of data and technology — text messages and Google histories — were wielded as evidence in some of these cases.”

As in the Burgess case, more than a quarter of cases were initially reported by an acquaintance.

“The fact remains that abortion stigma, perpetuated by abortion restrictions, leads to criminalization even when there is no authorizing statute,” the report reads. “

Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

This article is from  Common Dreams.

9 comments for “Facebook Shares Abortion-Related Chats With Police

  1. doris
    August 14, 2022 at 08:43

    If the young woman knew she was pregnant before the court made the decision in June, why did she wait til past the state deadline and the court decision to terminate her pregnancy?!

    Facebook is a spy in your brain. It exists for itself and for governments who use it to spy on anyone who uses it. Edward Snowden made that pretty clear. There is no such thing as privacy in the world anymore. You’ve probably signed a waiver to your privacy anyway by signing the social media contract. When you sign TikTok’s contract, you give them permission to enter into every one of your devices. Get a clue! They’re after you!

  2. Silent Bob
    August 13, 2022 at 13:18

    Lets be perfectly clear. Facebook exists for the purpose of surveilence.

    It is the core of their business model. Surveillance is how Zuckerman became one of the richest people on the earth. Facebook watches everything everyone does (including off of Facebook when they can get their bots and their cookies collecting info for them). Then, Facebook markets this information to anyone from advertisers to the government. This is how Facebook makes money.

    Facebook is surveilence. It has no other reason to exist. At least not under capitalism. One does not turn a profit by simply letting daughters send free messages to their mothers. And under capitalism, everything is required to create profit in order to justify its existence.

  3. Silent Bob
    August 13, 2022 at 13:09

    “f” is for fascist.

    If I was an artists, I’d make a graphic of that blue facebook ‘f’ as the opening letter of the word ‘fascism’.

  4. Dee Cee
    August 13, 2022 at 10:55

    This case sounds like two women who staged themselves to become new test cases for abortion rights. Intentionally planning a termination one week after it becomes illegal? Having a “friend” watch as you take the first two pills? And bazinga! Now they’re criminally charged under the brand new law. Imagine that! You know what’s really sad? It doesn’t seem like anyone really thought about the baby–who died–so mommy and grammy could get all this attention. IMO, they deserve to be charged criminally. Pray to end abortion.

  5. Afdal
    August 13, 2022 at 06:15

    It will never happen, E2E encryption fundamentally flies right in the face of Facebook’s business model, which is to collect absolutely everything and sell it to advertisers. If you want privacy-respecting secure communication you need to get the heck off Facebook, the biggest tool of mass surveillance in human history, and use something else.

  6. August 12, 2022 at 20:19

    There is no justifiable reason for Facebook, a private corporation to surveil anything.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 13, 2022 at 11:57

      Hear, hear. It is not just a danger for pregnant people, but for ALL people. And the “friend” who reported the young woman to the police is no friend, but a snitch.

    • Brian Bixby
      August 14, 2022 at 00:18

      Their entire business model is to sell advertising based on their surveillance, they’ve always been fairly open about that. Unfortunately most people don’t think about what this actually means.

      When Whatsapp was purchased one of the last things they did while still independent was to turn on end-t0-end encryption. Farcebook management was outraged, but removing that functionality would have drawn too much attention to their business model so they had to leave it in.

  7. Dfnslblty
    August 12, 2022 at 18:58

    FB is just one of the many tentacles of Big & Corp government.

    If it’s on the web/internet, it’s free — you are the product.

Comments are closed.