A new investigation shows how Facebook gathers personal data from people who visit crisis pregnancy center websites.
By now, most people know that apps and services track their activity across the internet — to the point that it is hard to surprise anyone with the type of information that tech companies know about them. But here’s one that just might cause you to raise an eyebrow: According to an investigation from Reveal and The Markup, Facebook is collecting information from abortion seekers and allowing anti-abortion organizations to target them.
Here’s how it works: When you visit a website, trackers on that site can report information about you to Facebook. That information can then be used to target certain ads and content that appear on your Facebook feed. What Reveal and The Markup found was that hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers — anti-abortion clinics often operated by religious organizations — collect information about potential patients who visit their sites and share that information with Facebook. That allows these anti-abortion organizations to then serve content on Facebook and across the web aimed at convincing people not to receive abortion care.
The Markup used a custom tool to identify tracking tools that appear on websites and in apps, in order to reveal how prominent they are and what kind of information they collect and share. It found that at least 294 crisis pregnancy center websites share data with Facebook. That includes details about the type of care that a person is looking for, from abortion access to emergency contraceptives and pregnancy tests. It also included details about a person scheduling a consultation at one of these clinics.
Once in the possession of Facebook and associated with a specific user, that information can be utilized in a number of ways. A crisis pregnancy center can start serving that user content that dissuades them from seeking an abortion, including misinformation about the effects of this type of care. This is a common tactic of these organizations, which often spread false information claiming a link between abortion care and cancer, infertility, and other concerns that are provably untrue.
Potentially even more troubling than this type of persuasion campaign, though, is the possibility that these sites might collect user data and use it to report people to law enforcement. In states like Texas and Oklahoma, there are now legal bounty programs that offer a reward for turning in people involved in the abortion process. Law enforcement agencies could seek access to this type of data to punish abortion seekers and providers.
Facebook is not supposed to collect this stuff. The company claims that it does not seek sensitive health information and has a filtering system that blocks more than 70,000 health terms from being collected. But it doesn’t appear to be stopping the collection of information from people seeking abortions. The company didn’t answer Reveal’s questions about data collected from anti-abortion organizations. In a statement to Mic, a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta said: “It is against our policies for websites and apps to send sensitive information about people through our Business Tools. Our system is designed to filter out potentially sensitive data it detects, and we work to educate advertisers on how to properly set up our Business Tools.”