U.S. abortion advocates face doxxing as data scavenged online

A person types on a laptop computer in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

A person types on a laptop computer in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

What’s the context?

Anti-abortion groups use data brokers and public records requests to find opponents' personal details to post online

  • Personal data on abortion providers available online
  • Pressure grows for curbs, new laws to limit data brokers
  • Data-scrubbing companies report rising demand

LOS ANGELES/BOGOTA – U.S. abortion rights campaigner Alison Dreith has moved house four times in the last five years - partly an attempt to dodge the threatening letters that kept arriving in her mailbox.

"The first time I got a letter I thought to myself 'how the hell did they get my address?'" said Dreith, head of strategic partnerships at the Midwest Access Coalition, a nonprofit that helps women access legal abortions.

"They want to scare me into inaction," she told Context, adding that the threats had led her to fear for her personal safety and vary her daily routines as a security measure.

But the harassment from anti-abortion groups has waned since she sought help from Brightlines, a Washington-based company that helps people working on politically sensitive issues to remove their personal data from the internet.

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It has helped Dreith scrub old websites where her phone number was listed, and even transferred ownership of her house to a trust so her address can not be traced by her harassers or the data broker companies that trade in such information.

In March, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) launched an inquiry into the U.S. data broker industry, as digital rights groups call for tougher controls on the collection, use and sale of consumer data, including abortion-related content.

Data companies often buy or scrape data in bulk from public agencies, such as license plate information, addresses, utility bill history, as well as online sources such as browsing information or cellphone location, said Brightlines CEO Shauna Dillavou.

She and other data protection advocates say the data brokering industry is putting abortion rights campaigners at risk.

In early June, Brightlines was part of a coalition of groups that submitted comments to the CFPB asking the agency for a number of reforms, include an opt-out option for people who do not want data brokers to peddle their private and sensitive information.

"For many people, the stakes cannot be overstated," the group wrote. "Not removing their personal data from these repositories continues to put their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, at risk."

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest outside a clinic called Choices in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., November 2, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest outside a clinic called Choices in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., November 2, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Anti-abortion demonstrators protest outside a clinic called Choices in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., November 2, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

'Burn in hell'

Violence and threats against abortion providers have risen in the year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women's constitutional right to abortion.

About half of U.S. states have banned or restricted abortion access since the June 2022 decision.

Abortion rights campaigners say it has emboldened their opponents, and they fear online abuse and physical attacks could escalate when the divisive issue comes up during campaigning for the 2024 presidential election.

Death threats and other threats of violence jumped 20% last year from 2021, including those communicated on the internet and threatening calls and mail to abortion clinics, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), an association representing providers.

Melissa Fowler, the NAF's chief program officer, said common hate messages on social media include "Time to bomb abortion clinics," "Death to abortionists," and "Burn in hell."

Anti-abortion groups are also known to live stream on Facebook when breaking into abortion clinics, said Fowler, and then "brag" about it online.

Women seeking abortions can also experience online harassment, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Abortion seekers "are almost always turned in by somebody they trust, often a family member or a doctor," Galperin said.

"It's absolutely intentional," she added.

Deleted data

Rising online abuse against abortion rights activists has also driven more demand for DeleteMe, a company that provides a subscription service that pulls clients' personal information off the internet and out of reach of data brokers.

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling, the number of people working in reproductive health seeking the company's services has tripled, said John Gilmore, head of research at DeleteMe.

"The feedback from clients has been there is a noticeable decline but it never ever reduces things to zero ... at best what you are doing is just reducing, limiting the low-hanging fruit," Gilmore said.

"It's never just your information, it's your entire family's worth of information. And often even when your own personal information is protected, your family members are not."

Such risks have also brought in cases for New York-based law firm C. A. Goldberg, PLLC.

It represents abortion providers and campaigners who have experienced doxxing - the malicious posting of personal information on social media - and other forms of digital harassment.

"We're seeing an increase in anti-abortion extremists weaponizing public records requests to inappropriately obtain deeply personal information about abortion providers," said Laura Hecht-Felella, an attorney at the firm.

Such information includes unredacted medical licenses and renewal applications that contain providers' home addresses, personal emails and phone numbers, and also unredacted passport photo pages, marriage and birth certificates, she said.

"The records are published on anti-abortion doxxing sites that compile extremely detailed dossiers of personal information about where providers were born, grew up, went to school, live and work, as well as the identities of their friends and families," said Hecht-Felella.

Data brokers are "one factor in a constellation of exposures that can make someone vulnerable," she noted.

"When doxxing information is obtained through a public records request, it can be difficult to remedy through traditional legal channels," Hecht-Felella said.

Joanne Rosen, whose published research examines the doxxing of abortion providers on an anti-abortion website, said such tactics aim to discourage doctors from performing the procedure.

"I don't know if physicians are aware of the breadth of highly personal information that is available to strangers," said Rosen, a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

After years on the frontlines of providing abortion care, Colleen P. McNicholas, chief medical officer with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, is acutely aware of the risks.

"We are on alert. We are always aware who is outside the house," said McNicholas.

Security cameras monitor her home and a Planned Parenthood clinic in Illinois where she works, and she and other clinic staff have frequent check-ins with local and state police, domestic terrorism units and the FBI.

Her approach to dealing with online abuse is to ignore "everyday social media trolling," McNicholas said.

She has a security team that monitors online posts and informs her about any dangers when necessary.

"Extremism is a tactic to build fear," said McNicholas. "I have chosen to confront fear by being outspoken in public."

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney and Avi Asher-Schapiro; Editing by Helen Popper.)

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