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After Roe v. Wade, healthcare data privacy fears grow worldwide

A health worker is silhouetted as she checks up on a woman inside a reproductive health counselling booth during a health fair held to mark World Population Day in Quezon City, Metro Manila July 11, 2009. REUTERS/John Javellana

A health worker is silhouetted as she checks up on a woman inside a reproductive health counselling booth during a health fair held to mark World Population Day in Quezon City, Metro Manila July 11, 2009. REUTERS/John Javellana

What’s the context?

From the Philippines to Chile, abortion rights activists say U.S. anti-abortion moves are raising concerns that women seeking a termination could be tracked down due to their internet search histories or location data.

  • Concerns over digital tracking, health data security grow

  • Many countries lack robust personal data protection laws

  • Fear of being tracked may lead to more unsafe abortions

By Rina Chandran and Diana Baptista

BANGKOK/MEXICO CITY - For many women seeking an abortion in the Philippines, an outright ban means the internet is their only source of help. But since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, activists fear some could be too scared to type in "abortion".

Clandestine terminations are common in the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, where women use pseudonyms on Facebook and in chat groups on the mobile apps Telegram and Signal to access abortion pills and illegal abortion providers.

But from the Philippines to Chile, abortion rights activists say U.S. anti-abortion moves are raising concerns that women seeking a termination could be tracked down due to their internet search histories or location data.

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"Seeing the U.S. trend, if Filipino women become more afraid to go online for information ... it would only result in more unsafe abortions," said Clara Padilla, an attorney and spokesperson for the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network.

"They go online for support and advice as abortion is so stigmatised and dangerous in this country ... They want to do it in a secure manner," Padilla, who urges local police not to prosecute women for abortions during gender sensitivity training, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many women lack access to contraception in the Philippines, and can be jailed for up to six years for terminating a pregnancy due to a ban on abortion in any circumstances - one of the most restrictive laws in the world.

So far, there have not been any prosecutions of abortion seekers based on their online activity in the country, Padilla said.

A data privacy law protects personal information and a cybercrime warrant is required to get information from platforms, she added.

But many countries do not have such legislation, and the anti-abortion shift in the United States has also fuelled debate around the world about the safety of mobile health apps, which are often used to track fertility.

Health apps routinely share sensitive consumer data with third parties including social media firms, data brokers and advertisers, found a 2019 study in the British Medical Journal.

Data leaks

The use of fertility apps is growing rapidly in Asia, with revenue for such apps in the region estimated by research firm Statista to reach nearly $100 million this year.

But many Asian countries lack robust data protection laws, including India where fertility app Maya was reported by digital rights group Privacy International in 2019 to have shared users' reproductive health data with Facebook for targeted advertising.

At the time, the app - which then had about 7 million downloads - said it did not share any "personally identifiable data or medical data".

Sheroes, the company that owns the app, did not respond to a request for comment on whether it had changed its policy.

Without a data protection law in India, users are at the mercy of the apps, said Anushka Jain, an associate counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group in Delhi.

"Healthcare data needs a higher degree of protection, especially reproductive healthcare data. But it's really down to these private firms how they safeguard the data," she said.

While India has rules protecting "sensitive personal data", these are not strictly enforced, and do not apply to government and public agencies, Jain said.

This is worrying, she added, because there have been several large breaches of the reproductive health data of millions of women held by federal and state agencies in India recently.

India had among the most data breaches of any country last year, according to virtual private network Surfshark. Digital rights groups say that points to weak cybersecurity and a lack of accountability.

Serious safeguards

Period tracking apps are also widely used in Latin America, where a handful of countries have recently eased abortion curbs amid growing opposition to some of the world's strictest rules.

Several countries in the region have data protection laws that allow for the collection of personal data with the consent of the user.

But the user often gives consent without knowing what that entails, or the companies may not be completely transparent about how the data is used, said Juan Carlos Lara, director of Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights), a Chilean nonprofit.

"There have been concerns for a long time on the collection of personal data of people who use reproductive health apps in Latin America," he said.

"The rules may be insufficient to control abuses."

Calendario do Periodo (Period Calendar), an app that goes by different names in various countries, was shown in a 2018 study of period tracking apps by Coding Rights, a Brazilian think-tank, as having access to users' data such as photos and files, and not offering clear information on privacy.

A spokesperson for My Calendar, the apps' owner, did not respond to a question on whether it had changed its policy.

Lara said he was also concerned about the possibility of digital tracking to see if a person has accessed medical services, contacted a reproductive helpline, or purchased certain medications.

Although this has not been done for abortion seekers, "there is a risk if the authority can request this data from companies, or worse, if they can access the devices of a person," he said.

Seizing mobiles and computers to look for evidence of suspected crimes is common in Latin America, he said.

"That is why it is so important to create serious institutional safeguards so that authorities do not have uncontrolled access to the data in the hands of companies, nor to devices in the hands of people," he added.


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