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Your phone and digital data could reveal if you've had an abortion

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, people seeking abortions will face a different world than those who sought them in previous decades, one in which their digital data could potentially be used as evidence against them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CLICK HERE")

ZACH EDWARDS: Your phone is the snitch. It's a snitch in your pocket.

RASCOE: That's Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who spoke with Dina Temple-Raston for an episode of the "Click Here" podcast all about so-called digital dust and the ways in which it is already a risk for people seeking an abortion or helping others get one. Dina Temple-Raston joins us now to talk about it. Thanks for being here.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You bet. Nice to be here.

RASCOE: So let's just start by talking about so-called digital dust or pattern data. What is that, and how can it be used by people who want to restrict abortions?

TEMPLE-RASTON: When Zach Edwards talks about the snitch in your pocket, he's talking about your iPhone. Your iPhone and your apps are vacuuming up data all the time. And Zach is an expert in data brokers, and data brokers are basically the people who package your data and sell it to marketers and advertisers. And there's all this data that includes where we are, for how long, our interests, our demographics, who we're with. And that sort of - if you bring all that data together, it becomes something called pattern data. And pattern data is what brokers vacuum up - package. And basically, they create these anonymous profiles based on your daily routines, and then they sell it to people. And that's what people are worried about can be used - sort of weaponized, in a way, to target people if there's a rollback of Roe v. Wade.

RASCOE: Because they would be able to possibly see where you've been, right? Like, if you went to a place where abortions were performed or something like that, that's something that could be seen in the data.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. It's actually much more detailed than that. There's a data broker called Placer.ai. And up until last month, if you actually typed in the words Planned Parenthood, you could get the location of every clinic in the U.S. And then you could click again and get pattern data of people who were there. And if you're in a rural area instead of, say, New York, where, you know, if you tracked someone, they would go to an apartment building and it could be thousands of people - if you're in a rural area, you can actually trace that right back to maybe one or two or three houses. And then you take the pattern data and you see, how many of these houses have demographic data that indicates that there's a woman of childbearing age in that particular house or any of the people in those house is doctors? It doesn't take a lot to sort of put that all together and figure out whether or not they are actually visiting an abortion clinic because either they're a doctor who performs them or someone who maybe wants to terminate a pregnancy.

RASCOE: So in response to a story about this, Placer.ai tweaked their search engine. But does that fix it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, it doesn't. I mean, the tweaking of the search engine just meant that you didn't have to type in the words Planned Parenthood specifically and get the locations. But it's like any Google search. You just keep tweaking the search terms until you get what you want. And you can still do that because the underlying data is still there. That means if you're really determined, you can find all this information. If, for example, you're living in Texas, where there are incentives for people to actually search for people who might be performing abortions or helping people get them, there's actually a bounty program there. So you could spend $1.50 on this sort of data from a data broker, get this information and then get a $10,000 bounty for actually turning someone in.

RASCOE: And if Roe is overturned, it would only get more relevant in a lot more states across the country.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Absolutely. I mean, right now, certain states have these sort of draconian abortion prohibitions, but imagine if it becomes federal. And we know that if Roe v. Wade gets rolled back, a whole bunch of states are just waiting on the precipice to pass these kinds of laws.

RASCOE: Another thing that came up when that draft opinion came out is that a lot of people use apps to track their periods. Is that a concern as well?

TEMPLE-RASTON: There's actually this data broking company called Narrative that lets anyone sign up and purchase information related to users of specific apps. And the company's actually been offering data from users who they say downloaded these period-tracking apps. You know, this isn't hypothetical that someone would take this kind of information from an app and actually essentially target people with it. You know, there was this Catholic priest who was outed last year after a Catholic news site was able to analyze data on Grindr, the gay dating app, and to single him out.

RASCOE: And, I mean, all of this is possible because there's just not a lot of regulation, right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. This is actually very timely because just on Friday, Congress released a bipartisan draft bill it calls the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. And what it would do for the first time is it would provide a national standard on what data companies can gather from people and how they can use it. So right now, Americans' data is protected basically by a patchwork of state and, like, sector-specific privacy laws - like, financial and health information is protected. But this would be a more holistic sort of approach, and it would limit various kinds of collection.

RASCOE: For the people out there who are listening and are like, I don't want my data to be used in this way, like, what can they do?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, actually, there's a whole handbook on this that you can find online about how to protect yourself from being tracked. Yes, you wouldn't take your phone with you. Turning it off, by the way, is not enough. Deleting apps and deleting information is another way to do it. So, yes, you can delete some information, but you can't delete it all. There needs to be a law, and that's why they're moving in that direction.

RASCOE: That's Dina Temple-Raston, host of the "Click Here" podcast about all things cyber and intelligence. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "WEIGHT OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.