- Police are asking for social media user data to aid prosecution after a crime has been committed.
- Sometimes, the crime is abortion, and social networking apps turn over user chat logs and search history.
- A legal expert said social platforms can cooperate with police even if not required by law.
As abortion bans are implemented and enforced across the country, law enforcement is turning to social media platforms to build cases to prosecute women seeking abortions or abortion-inducing drugs — and online platforms like Google and Facebook assist.
This spring, a woman named Jessica Burgess and her daughter will go on trial in Nebraska for an illegal abortion — with a key piece of evidence provided by Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Burgess allegedly helped her daughter find and take pills that would cause an abortion. Burgess teenager also faces charges for allegedly illegally disposing of fetal remains.
TechCrunch reported that internal chat records were provided to law enforcement officers by the social media company, which showed the pair had discussed their plan to find the drug through the app.
Meta said in a statement about the Nebraska incident that it responded to “valid legal warrants from local law enforcement” before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned national abortion rights and allowed bans in some states.
And even though the warrants Meta responded to in that case “did not mention abortion” — as law enforcement had requested the conversation logs while investigating the teen’s disposal of the remains, which incidentally revealed the conversation about the abortion pills — The subsequent indictments reveal how data released by social media companies can be used to prosecute people for abortion, even when being investigated for other reasons.
Pharmacies sharing data
A ProPublica investigation found that online pharmacies that sell abortion drugs such as mifepristone and misoprostol are sharing sensitive data, including users’ web addresses, relative location and search data, with Google and other third-party sites — which allows the data to be recovered through law enforcement requests.
ProPublica found similar web trackers that capture user data on the websites of at least nine online pharmacies offering mail-order abortion pills, including Abortion Ease, BestAbortionPill.com, PrivacyPillRX, PillsOnlineRX, Secure Abortion Pills, AbortionRx, Generic Abortion Privacy, Abortion Pill , and online abortion pill Rx.
Neither pharmacy immediately responded to Insider’s requests for comment.
FBI officials told Insider that they were “unable to satisfy” Insider’s detailed request for information about the criteria required for officers to make a request for a civilian’s social media or Internet history, which information is generally handed over to them for seeking such information and what channels officers used to make these requests.
Representatives for Google and the Los Angeles and New York police departments, two of the largest police forces in the country, did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
“We only comply with government requests for user information when we believe in good faith that the law requires us to do so,” a Meta spokesperson told Insider. “In addition, we assess whether a request complies with internationally recognized human rights standards, including due process, privacy, freedom of expression and the rule of law. When we comply, we only produce information that is closely tailored to that request . If we find that a request seems inadequate or too broad, we push back and will fight in court if necessary. We do not provide governments with ‘back doors’ to inform citizens.”
According to internal statistics provided by Meta, the company complies with government requests for user data more than 70% of the time and receives more than 400,000 requests annually.
“Certainly, we expect social media companies to cooperate with law enforcement when they make legitimate requests for information, we need them to do that,” Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and co-director of the Lyceum of school. Tech Law Institute, told Insider. “But we also know that social media is not likely to respond to illegal law enforcement requests, either because they fear their own liability or because it’s too expensive to respond.”
Goldman pointed to examples where Internet services have taken positive action in court to protect users’ interests, “but those are the exceptions.”
“There are thousands of requests for each of these cases, and there are thousands of other decisions that the company made to hand over the data because it’s easier and faster that way,” Goldman said. “So law enforcement knows they can make requests from social media, including court requests that don’t comply with the law, and they expect most of them to be honored simply because that’s the path of least resistance for social networking services”.
No incentive to protect privacy
While cases against people who seek abortions are increasingly informed by user data provided by social media companies, these are not the only prosecutions based on what people share online.
Public posts on social media can be used to build cases against people for serious cases, such as child abuse and murder, as well as for less serious incidents that could have First Amendment implications, such as pranksters who tweeted threats against airlines and memes interpreted by the Department of Justice as election interference.
Private content from users — such as location data or messages — requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before it can be turned over.
But “social media companies don’t really have an incentive to protect privacy,” Sharon Docter, PhD, JD and professor of law and new media at California Lutheran University, told Insider. He said that because the platforms themselves are unlikely to prioritize user privacy, the onus to do so falls on the individual user.
“Social media users should be concerned about privacy and that users should really think about the fact that their digital footprint could potentially be available to law enforcement if there is a valid search warrant,” Docter added. “And they should really do what they can to protect their privacy by looking at sending encrypted messages, making sure their location data is turned off, making every effort to understand the privacy policies of the platforms they use. “
Expecting social media companies to change their policies or standardize encryption is unlikely, Docter and Goldman told Insider, as they are not motivated by law or user pressure to do so. But the overly broad requests made by the government are the crux of the problem, Goldman noted — not that social media is cooperating with law enforcement in the first place.
“All social media services that are driven by anxiety because I’m a pawn in law enforcement’s game seems wrong to me. Social media is actually a pawn in that game,” Goldman told Insider, adding that the people often don’t want to anger law enforcement or the government for overreaching and instead get angry with Facebook or Google for complying with sometimes illegal requests.
“We say ‘law enforcement is just trying to do their job,’ right, and ‘if they make a mistake along the way, but they get the bad guys, you know, the ends justify the means,'” Goldman added. “It’s so tempting to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, and that’s why it’s so hard for us to face the reality: Maybe there are times when they don’t deserve that benefit.”