Bulletins

Facebook handed police private messages in case resulting in abortion charges

Meta said the warrants "did not mention abortion at all."

Meta logo on a white background.

The case demonstrates how social media platforms could find themselves at the whims of law enforcement in abortion-related cases.

Image: Dima Solomin/Unsplash

Facebook gave law enforcement in Nebraska private messages sent between a mother and a 17-year-old girl, who are now facing several charges in the state relating to a medication abortion the girl had. Facebook was served a search warrant, which was obtained by Vice, asking for their private data as part of the state's investigation.


The platform handed over messages showing a user named Jessica telling a user named Celeste about abortion medication (court records identify the mother and daughter as Jessica and Celeste Burgess, respectively). Those messages were used as the basis for another search warrant, which officers used to confiscate the mother's and daughter's laptops, phones and additional private data, according to Vice. The Norfolk Daily News, which first wrote about the case, reported that the two were charged last month and pleaded not guilty.

Meta published a blog Tuesday saying it received the warrants on June 7, before Roe v. Wade was overturned, and the warrants "did not mention abortion at all." The company said the warrants were related to charges of a criminal investigation where a stillborn baby was allegedly burned and buried. The court asked for evidence from Facebook to figure out "whether the baby was stillborn or asphyxiated," according to Vice.

According to a Nebraska law enacted before Roe was reversed, abortion is illegal 20 weeks after an egg is fertilized. Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigations Unit said in a sworn affidavit that the department began investigating the case after receiving a tip from a friend of Celeste who said she saw her take abortion medication in April. The teen had a miscarriage when she was around 23 weeks pregnant, according to CNBC.

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe didn't change Nebraska's ability to bring up these charges, since the state's abortion law was already in place before the ruling. But the case still demonstrates how social media platforms could find themselves at the whims of law enforcement in abortion-related cases. Facebook stores user data in plain text on its servers, so the company can access most user information if it's asked to do so with a warrant.

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