Abortion rights activists react outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade, in Washington, DC, on June 24, 2022.
Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Your data is worth more than your life to tech companies

Source Code

Tech companies have created employee reimbursement programs, but they have been silent on whether they’ll protect users’ data that could put them at risk of prosecution.

Your data is more valuable than you know

The Supreme Court has ended abortion rights as we knew them. The ruling has unleashed a wave of restrictive laws in red states that will outlaw abortion and penalize people seeking abortions and providers of what is a fundamental form of health care.

That’s forced tech companies to choose where they stand on abortion rights. And their responses speak volumes. A wave of tech companies set up reimbursement programs for workers seeking out-of-state abortions after the draft decision overruling Roe v. Wade leaked, indicating a level of care for employee well-being and retention. But what speaks even louder is their silence about users’ data. That’s a tacit acknowledgment that data is so valuable, tech companies would rather keep on collecting it, even if people are thrown in jail, fined or killed.

The post-Roe world is data reckoning. Thirteen states have trigger bans in place that will outlaw abortion, and at least seven more states are likely to follow suit, according to a Washington Post analysis. And there is no shortage of ways that data is about to be weaponized as a tool to find and punish people seeking abortions and providers alike in those and nearby states.

  • Texas’ abortion law, for example, allows anyone to sue anyone for aiding and abetting abortion. There, data could be used to track down providers, the Uber driver who shuttles someone to an abortion clinic or abortion rights advocates fundraising on Facebook or through Venmo.
  • Elsewhere, we could see police request and use location data to similarly track down people involved in providing or receiving abortions, or fertility data as evidence that someone sought one.

Tech companies have one weird trick to help protect abortion rights. Reimbursing employees who have to travel for abortions is one way to help a small sliver of the populace deal with draconian laws.

  • But to help everyone, tech companies could just stop collecting so much data. Ad brokers could stop selling it. They all could fight police subpoenas.
  • And yet tech companies have so far “no commented” their way out of having to address the reality that they have this enormous power.

That companies are unwilling to even acknowledge the data question is a tell. And it reflects a few things that are deeply discomforting.

  • We all know we live in an era of surveillance unparalleled in human history, but it’s hard to comprehend how broad and deep that surveillance network is. If companies stepped up to the plate to curtail data collection, it’d probably be eye-opening to a large swath of the public.
  • That data is also wildly valuable to companies. The user data trade was a $29 billion market last year.
  • In essence, companies’ silence says they think the data collection and sale process is so opaque, users won’t raise a fuss about it. And data itself is more valuable to the companies than helping people have access to life-saving health care.
  • It also tells users that they’re on their own if they want to safely seek an abortion free of prosecution. Doing so will be a monumental challenge for those people.

Of course, tech companies have always valued data above all else. Again, the depth and breadth of data makes boatloads of cash for them, despite the risks it poses to the individuals whose data is being collected. Companies have faced backlash for how location and keyword data has been handed over to police or bought by right-wing activists. In other words, we’ve already had a preview of how data can be used to target users. But it’s about to become much more extreme — and dangerous.

My colleague Issie Lapowsky will have more to say on fixes for the data dragnet problem tomorrow. Make sure you sign up for the Protocol Policy newsletter to get the scoop.

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