Facebook has provided private chat logs to the police to aid them in prosecuting a mother for helping her daughter get an abortion.
The case occurred in Nebraska, when Jessica Burgess helped her 18-year-old daughter obtain abortion pills. The termination of the pregnancy was discussed over Facebook messages, which were turned over to the local law enforcement, and a trial is set for April 10.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, released a statement saying that the warrants they received didn’t mention abortion, instead stating that the police were investigating the “alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant.”
Though Meta claims that they only comply with government requests for user information if they have a “good-faith belief that the law requires us to do so,” they have complied with over 70% of government requests, receiving more than 400,000 requests a year.
In states like Louisiana, where abortion was made completely illegal after the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade, the law enforcement has the power to make companies hand over otherwise private information and records to aid in prosecuting abortion seekers.
Dr. William Davie, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette that teaches communications law, shared that the law enforcement just needs to have probable cause and a search warrant to get access to your personally identifiable information (PII).
This information would include data such as your search history, messages and chat logs.
Though the judge shouldn’t sign a warrant without evidence of probable cause, Davie shared they often simply go on the word of those investigating.
“Frankly, a lot of judges will take the word of the district attorney, or the investigating detective, or even the cop on the street who says ‘Listen, I heard this lady saying that she was going to induce her daughter’s miscarriage way past the legal limit in our state,’” Davie said.
According to Davie, prosecutors will seek out as much evidence as they can for their case, including those made against people seeking an abortion.
“Everything you got, and that would be part of the body of evidence that the prosecutor would want to bring forward. Search histories, gas station receipts, security video cameras, whatever they have that shows what we have now criminalized, unfortunately: the termination of a pregnancy,” Davie said.
In a 2018 case, a woman’s Google search history was used as part of the prosecution. Davie shared that even deleting your search history wouldn’t help protect you, as it’s still collected and stored somewhere else.
“Beware what you do online. You may think it’s private, and it will be, it should be, up until the point that some investigating government agent says there’s probable cause of crime,” Davie warned.
ProPublica also found that at least nine online pharmacies providing abortion pills had web trackers that collected information about its users for Google and other companies.
According to ProPublica, the sites also sent information to Google which included “a random number that is unique to a user’s browser, which can then be linked to other collected data.”
Though law enforcement agencies require a search warrant to access user information, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed back in 2013 the vast extent of the U.S. government’s domestic and global surveillance programs, and the tendency of its agencies to go beyond probable cause.
“I am adamantly opposed to investigative snooping. I am completely angered and upset by police who really have no probable cause except their own prejudices or their own feelings, but nothing that would pass an objective test,” Davie said.
Abortion is illegal in Louisiana, even in cases of rape or incest. The only exceptions that may be made are if the mother’s life or health are at grave risk, or if the fetus is not expected to survive the pregnancy. Currently, the abortion provider is the one that would be prosecuted, not the abortion-seeker.
According to a bill signed by Governor John Bel Edwards, prescribers of abortion pills can be prosecuted, but it remains unclear how that will actually be enforced against providers who ship the medication from other states.
Amaris Milano, a freshman majoring in music media, stated that she felt her bodily autonomy was has been curbed
“I feel like I don’t have all the free range over my body that an average American citizen should have and searching through private messages only adds insult to injury. I really don’t want to live looking over my shoulder for everything I do,” Milano said.
Shayna Jackson, a freshman majoring in interior design, shared how both she and other women have had their rights taken from them.
“It’s a very uneasy feeling post Roe v. Wade, due to the fact that it feels as if part of my rights have been stripped away from me,” Jackson said. “Not just me but the countless of other women who may have been forced to have a child, what about them? What about the children who were impregnated against their will? It’s hard to think about and it’s hard to live with.”