The Supreme Court is shortly expected to issue its decision on a challenge to Roe v. Wade that will—if a leaked draft version of the opinion holds—end federal protection for abortion access across the US. If that happens, it will have far-reaching consequences for millions of people. One of those is that it could significantly increase the risk that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions, sending authorities information that could lead to criminal proceedings.

Opponents of abortion have been using methods like license plate tracking for decades. In front of many clinics around the US, it remains a daily reality.  

To get to the parking lot at Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, people often have to drive through a gauntlet of protesters carrying cameras and clipboards, filming their arrival and recording details about them and their cars. 

Heather Mobley, a board member of Charlotte for Choice, volunteers as a clinic defender there. Clinic defenders put themselves in between people attending the clinics and protesters, verbally engaging with protesters as needed. They also surveil the surveillance. Mobley uploads examples of anti-abortion protesters’ tactics to TikTok; hers is one of several accounts that document the extent of daily protests there.   

“They always have a GoPro or similar-looking body cam set up when they’re out there,” Mobley says. When she asks them about it, the protesters say they’re filming for their own protection. Sometimes, she says, activists will set up a public Wi-Fi network called “abortion info” that, should a patient join thinking it belongs to the clinic, will lead to a page filled with anti-abortion materials. 

Old tactics renewed

Defenders we spoke to say that anti-abortion activists haven’t used the data to track down and harass patients lately, but there is a long history of their doing so. If the Supreme Court rules as expected, access to legal abortion will be subject to state laws; 13 states have “trigger laws” that would ban abortions should Roe be overturned, for instance. For residents of states that outlaw abortion, this sort of surveillance could make it dangerous to cross state lines in search of care.

“The biggest fear, I think, is that there are going to be states that not only ban abortion in short order, but start criminalizing pregnant people who are seeking abortion services even out of state,” says Nathan Wessler, the deputy project director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the ACLU. 

Some states that protect abortion services might be able to limit what out-of-state law enforcement can do directly, he notes, but that “doesn’t mean that there won’t be anti-abortion vigilantes recording information [outside of clinics] and then

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By: Abby Ohlheiser
Title: Anti-abortion activists are collecting the data they’ll need for prosecutions post-Roe
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Published Date: Tue, 31 May 2022 08:36:07 +0000