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Overturning Roe v. Wade would usher in a new era of surveillance

An intrusive police state would likely follow if and when the Supreme Court overturns the landmark abortion rights ruling.


The unprecedented leak of a draft opinion Monday suggested the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights ruling, inevitably ushering in a new era of surveillance.

Extremely intrusive snooping is essentially what it would take to crack down on abortion and deter Americans from pursuing what had been their constitutional right for nearly five decades. That surveillance has already begun in some regards, and we can expect it to get even worse if and when the court’s ruling is handed down. 

We saw one creepy method of surveillance last year in Texas, when a right-wing anti-abortion group created a website to snitch on people believed to be violating the state’s restrictive abortion law. That website was trolled into extinction, but the fundamental aim behind it remains. 

Whether it’s private vigilantes empowered by laws like Texas Senate Bill 8 or public officials conducting state-sanctioned surveillance, anti-abortion overseers still have many tools at their disposal to essentially spy on fellow Americans.

A Fast Company op-ed written by Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, last year explained how these people will likely go about snooping on abortion-seekers and providers:

It’s all but certain that police and prosecutors will tap into the full fearsome force of the local surveillance state to find such evidence. Using geofence warrants, courts can compel companies to provide the device history of everyone in a specified map area. Law enforcement could use nearly any pretext to demand that Google and other tech companies provide the name of everyone who visits an abortion provider.

Virtually anyone suing to prevent or punish an abortion could subpoena location data used to track a person’s phone, digital medical records and, as Cahn noted, data monitored by period trackers to determine whether someone is pregnant. And since some states are considering making it illegal for residents to obtain an abortion in another state, that gives prosecutors and other anti-abortion litigants even more incentive to pry loose data about where private citizens are traveling.

Referencing the Texas law, Cahn also laid out a scenario in which schools play a role in the anti-abortion police state: 

Texas education officials could weaponize the state’s school surveillance network, identifying any public school students who search for information about abortion. Such tracking has grown rapidly during the pandemic, with more than 200 school districts secretly surveilling students’ email, web history, and social media posts without their knowledge or consent.

I should say here: Concern about private citizens’ data being used for nefarious purposes like these is the primary reason people should be worried about Elon Musk’s expected takeover of Twitter. It’s not implausible to think he’d support sharing data Twitter collects with anti-abortion groups and law enforcement officials — basically, anyone with a wallet or subpoena big enough.

And these worries aren’t hypothetical. Vice reported Tuesday on a data firm that is selling information about people who visit clinics that provide abortions, including where they came from, how long they stayed and where they went afterwards. 

Beyond that, we can expect the anti-abortion police state to ramp up even more as the means of having an abortion get easier due to technological and medical advancements.

Several states ban telehealth appointments for abortion, which are remote conferences between providers and patients about how to receive abortion care. Providers may prescribe medication to induce abortion, which several states have also banned, during or after the appointments. The forces seeking to stop these kinds of interactions will need to probe abortion-seekers’ computer use and potentially even their mail.

The attack on Roe v. Wade is obviously a rescission of Americans’ rights. But I suspect many Americans don’t yet know how restrictive things are likely to get.