How to hide your abortion
With abortion now a crime in several states, it’s essential you keep your data and communications out of the wrong hands.
It is not a revelation to say that everything you do online is tracked. But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back a person’s right to have an abortion, it is possible that online activity could be used against people seeking abortion care in states that have criminalized the act of exercising body autonomy.
This is not a hypothetical — it is reality.
Your data is being collected, including when you look for abortion-related care. Investigations have found that Facebook has identified users seeking abortion services, including identifying people who have made appointments at clinics. Apps designed to help people track their periods and ovulation cycle sell that information to third parties. Location data from people who visit abortion clinics gets bought and sold regularly by data brokers.
All of that is suddenly dangerously relevant as states openly contemplate the possibility of prosecuting people who seek out abortions. States with strict abortion restrictions will almost certainly charge abortion providers with felonies and may use evidence from patients, including their digital footprint, to prove that an abortion was provided. In a study published by the University of Baltimore Law Review in 2020, civil rights lawyer Cynthia Conti-Cook uncovered multiple criminal cases brought against women who were accused of self-inducing an abortion. In the cases, the prosecutors sought to collect text messages, emails, and search history in order to collect evidence to prove the accused terminated their pregnancy.
The data surveillance infrastructure already exists. The framework for prosecutors to access and use that information has already been set up. Tech companies are not going to protect you — they wouldn’t even commit to protecting data related to abortion services when asked.
This makes protecting yourself online imperative if you are seeking abortion care. Here’s how to hide your abortion from the surveillance state.
Delete period tracking data.
The unfortunate reality of this moment is that convenience can cost you. Some of the most used period tracking apps, made popular because they make it easy to keep track of your ovulation cycle, are suddenly a risk to your security. Ovia has more than 10 million users. Flo has more than 100 million. Both have been found to sell user data. Over the weekend, Stardust trended as one of the most downloaded apps because it promised not to sell user information — but the company will surrender information to law enforcement if asked, without even requiring a warrant.
Deleting these apps is imperative for anyone who may need to seek abortion care. The apps are a clear window into your ovulation cycle and could reveal to malicious actors if your period is late. The information they collect is not covered under HIPAA, which only protects data in apps operated or provided by health care providers or insurance companies. If you opted to use the app on your own, your data is not protected.
For this reason, it’s best to remove these apps from your phone entirely. But simply deleting the programs is not enough, because that does not remove your data. Flo maintains a record of your data for up to three years after your account is inactive, and many apps like Flo and Ovia won’t delete your records unless you request it.
- To delete your data from Flo, send an email to email@example.com and request all data associated with your account be deleted. This process can take up to 28 days and Flo will confirm via email once your data has been deleted.
- To delete your data from Ovia, open the app, navigate to “Settings,” then select “delete my account and data.”
- For any other app, contact support and ask for them to delete your personal data.
Get a VPN.
If you are seeking abortion care, one of the best tools you have to protect yourself is a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel that protects your online activity from any prying eyes, including internet service providers and law enforcement. This can disassociate your identity from what you do online.
You should not treat a VPN as a cure-all for online privacy, and you should be wary of any service that claims to be such. But you should at least consider a VPN as part of your security toolkit if you are seeking abortion services.
An ideal VPN will have a no logs policy, which means the company that operates the service will not keep any data about how you use it or what you do online. Additionally, your VPN should have a kill switch, which disconnects your device from the internet if the VPN loses connection. This prevents your data from leaking onto the unprotected internet if anything goes haywire.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation recommends several VPNs that meet these minimum standards and provide reliable protection for users. Those choices include:
- Mozilla VPN
How to install a VPN will depend on your device, but here’s a baseline guide:
- iPhone: Open the “Settings” app, select “General,” and select “VPN.” If you have installed one of the recommended VPNs or another VPN of your choice, it should appear here for you to select.
- Android: Open the “Settings” app, select “Network & Internet,” and select “VPN.” Again, if you have already downloaded one of these apps, select it and login to your account.
- Windows/Mac: Installing a VPN on a desktop or laptop computer will operate like installing any app on your device. Go to the service provider’s website and download the official app from the service. Once the download is finished, go through the installation process on screen.
Use a secure browser.
The data on your browser can be used to reveal your online activity — particularly if you are using a browser that is less privacy-friendly, like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. There are more privacy-focused browsers out there that will not keep your data or track your online activity, making them safer alternatives for searching information related to abortion care. It is also a good idea to compartmentalize this information anyway and not use your standard browser for looking up this information.
With that in mind, privacy-minded search engine DuckDuckGo has built a secure browser for iPhone and Android. The DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser blocks trackers on web pages that you visit and does not track your history or search activity.
You can also use browsers that utilize The Onion Routing Project (also known as TOR Project) to protect your online activity. These browsers randomly route your online activity through a number of servers to anonymize your movements and make them harder to track. The TOR Browser for Android and Onion Browser for iPhone utilize this technology.
On a laptop or desktop, you can use a browser like Firefox and install a number of privacy-focused add-ons. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommends installing Privacy Badger for blocking trackers, uBlock Origin for blocking advertisements that may have tracking cookies, and DuckDuckGo for safe and private online research.
Use secure communications.
Perhaps the most important part of securing your digital footprint is protecting your online communications, as this is the area where you are most likely to reveal potentially incriminating information. Searching for abortion care shows you were looking into the procedure but can’t prove that you got an abortion — but a text message to your friend could explicitly reveal that.
The best way to secure your communications is to speak only through platforms that have end-to-end encryption enabled by default. Luckily, some popular apps offer this: All messages sent to and from Apple devices using iMessage are encrypted. Likewise, WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption by default.
However, these big tech companies could theoretically still turn over your messages to law enforcement. Apple stores messages on iCloud, which could be accessed, or the company could grant law enforcement permission to see certain texts if served a warrant. WhatsApp, owned by Meta, shares some data with sister company Facebook.
Because of this, it’s best to use an app like Signal to communicate about abortion care. Signal is end-to-end encrypted and additionally offers the ability to set your messages to disappear or be deleted automatically after a specified period of time. This provides a level of protection that can automatically cover your tracks for you.
The EFF also recommends that you try to manually mask communications with people when discussing abortion-related care. Come up with code words and phrases that mask what you are discussing in case your texts were ever to fall into the wrong hands. “Camping” has become a popular term for describing traveling to receive an abortion, for example.
Do not post.
It is essential to cover up your digital trail if you are seeking an abortion. But it’s not just about obscuring your search history and other data that might reveal that you were seeking care — it’s also about not explicitly revealing anything, too. If you regularly post on social media, even if it is just to close friends or in a private group, do not share anything about your abortion. Posts include lots of metadata that can reveal things like geolocation, which can be used to peg you to a specific location, including an individual abortion clinic.
If you are actively seeking abortion care, do not post anything about it. You can also turn off your location data to make sure your location is not being leaked by any online activity.
- iPhone: open “Settings,” select “Privacy,” then select “Location Services” and turn off the slider to turn off location services.
- Android: go to “Settings,” select “Location,” and turn off the setting.
It’s even better to turn off your cellphone entirely, or leave it at home. Get a burner phone if you need to communicate with people while traveling for abortion care. Make sure you do not connect your temporary phone to WiFi networks or Bluetooth devices that may be linked to you.