January 6, 2023
Matt McCoy & Ari Friedman pen Op-Ed on abortion tracking for the LA Times
Op-Ed: Another threat to abortion privacy? Health websites tracking and sharing your data
Our research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab found that 99% of abortion clinic webpages surveyed have at least one third-party tracker on their site. The situation is usually worse: The average clinic webpage transfers data to nine different companies. Across all abortion clinics in the U.S., we found that trackers sent data to 66 different companies, from tech behemoths to businesses with little or no consumer-facing presence.
The tracked information can be sold and resold with virtually no limit on how it can be used. Companies can send a woman targeted ads based on her likely having obtained an abortion. Prosecutors in her state can use that data to provide evidence that she did.
Even private citizens can purchase lists of people who visited abortion clinic webpages, then use those names to initiate lawsuits against providers and patients under laws such as Texas’ Senate Bill 8. It may seem shocking that an abortion clinic would transfer visitors’ browsing data to for-profit companies. But the practice is a symptom of an online health privacy crisis that’s been years in the making.
The situation may seem hopeless, but there’s plenty we can do as individuals and as a society.