For years, civil rights activists have sounded the alarm on the cozy relationship between social media companies and law enforcement and its potential for troubling surveillance practices.
But social media platforms continue to attract and retain users, leaving hundreds of millions of Americans susceptible to snooping, potentially aided by their favorite apps. The Supreme Court's decision in June to overturn federal abortion rights set the foundation for a robust anti-abortion surveillance state that relies heavily on social media platforms, and a recent incident in Nebraska reveals how it might operate.
Earlier this week, NBC News reported that Facebook assisted Nebraska police in their recent investigation into a teen and her mother accused of performing an abortion in violation of Nebraska law.
Jessica Burgess is alleged to have supplied her then-17-year-old daughter, Celeste, with abortion bills and helping bury the fetus. Both women have pleaded not guilty to charges related to performing an abortion, concealing a body and providing false information.
The incident is alleged to have taken place in April, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Nebraska law bans abortions after 20 weeks, and authorities allege Celeste Burgess had a miscarriage at 23 weeks, shortly after taking abortion bills.
Here’s how NBC News described Facebook’s involvement:
[Detective Ben McBride] applied for and got a warrant in June for access into the digital lives of the mother and her daughter, seizing six smartphones and seven laptops and compelling Facebook to turn over chats between them. The alleged chats, published in court documents seen by NBC News, show a user named Jessica telling a user named Celeste about “What i ordered last month” and instructing her to take two pills 24 hours apart.
A statement from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said it received “valid" warrants to turn over the messages, which only mentioned “alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant” and “did not mention abortion at all.”
But as I alluded in my post back in May, the alliance between big tech and law enforcement in imposing abortion restrictions is going to be a privacy nightmare for Americans in the post-Roe world.
Sure, Facebook received “valid” warrants in this case. But let’s say, in a couple months’ time, a state or two passes a law barring people from traveling to another state to receive an abortion — a law many legal experts say would be unconstitutional. And let’s say Facebook receives a “valid” warrant to investigate someone who’s done so. That warrant might also include language about the death of a "stillborn infant" even if abortion is legal in the state where it’s performed. Yet we have every reason to believe Facebook would comply with that warrant too, despite its perceived lawlessness.
The Nebraska abortion case is a reminder that these will only be hypothetical scenarios for so long. Practicing more caution about abortion-related discussions on social media is critical. For instance, using end-to-end encryption can reportedly block Facebook from sharing your messages — but you have to turn the feature on. (Here's how.)
Americans need to be vigilant when using social media platforms — right now. You never know when one of them might serve you up to the cops.
CORRECTION (Aug. 12, 2022, 2:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this story misstated when Celeste Burgess had a miscarriage. It was around 28 weeks into her pregnancy, not 23 weeks.