Policy

Post-Roe, House Democrats want to know how Messenger protects metadata

Tech companies have desperately been trying to keep mum on the topic.

Pro-choice demonstrators during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. Abortion rights suddenly emerged as an issue that could reshape the battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress, following a report that conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court were poised to strike down the half-century-old Roe v. Wade precedent. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
States banning abortion means that tech will play a critical role in what’s to come for abortion access in the U.S.
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A group of more than a dozen House Democrats is asking Meta, AT&T and other companies whether they're limiting disclosure of metadata that could result in prosecutions against users who seek abortions.

In a letter sent Wednesday, the lawmakers asked Messenger, WhatsApp, AT&T, Verizon, Apple and Google about their handling of metadata — not the actual content of digital messages and calls, but information like senders and recipients. The Democrats' request, which was led by Rep. Lori Trahan, comes as many tech companies keep mum about how they'll handle data related to customers who might terminate their pregnancies, even after the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to criminalize abortion.

"Phone call and messaging metadata analysis could reveal a user’s plans to obtain information about and seek abortion care by analyzing the timing, duration, and frequency of calls to abortion providers," the letter said.

The Supreme Court ruling earlier in the summer has thrown tech companies into the middle of a volatile cultural war over information about abortion, especially in web searches, and whether the data they collect will be used in prosecutions.

While the companies that received the letter all offer some form of reimbursement to their own employees who travel to obtain abortion, some privacy experts have suggested that if Meta and Google in particular don't wish to defy valid demands from courts in a stand for reproductive rights, they should at least protect users by easing up on the collection of consumer information that lies at the heart of their business models.

The letter comes soon after the revelation that Meta handed over Messenger chats between a Nebraska teen and her mother to state authorities investigating the termination of the teen's pregnancy. Although the search warrant arrived before the high court's ruling and didn't mention abortion, the girl has now been charged. Days after issuing a statement about the case, Meta also announced additional testing of encrypted Messenger chats, a feature that's been in the works that could serve to protect some customers. (Encryption protects the content of messages but doesn't necessarily address concerns about metadata.)

The lawmakers, who asked for answers by Sept. 12, said the companies should explain their approach to metadata collection and storage, say if customers can opt out of these practices, and come forward about whether they've "adopted any policies to restrict the disclosure of metadata that could be used to prosecute or otherwise harass those seeking reproductive health care to law enforcement or private actors."

Trahan had previously organized a letter to data brokers including Oracle about their handling of information related to abortions. Oracle responded that first-party data collection is a greater concern than their business and that its advertising unit "does not permit customers to create datasets that are considered sensitive, which includes pregnancy or the termination thereof."

The privacy implications of metadata have long been fraught. While it's viewed as less revealing than the actual content of messages, and less intrusive for the government to obtain, the bulk collection of information about calls and emails has formed a core and controversial tactic in the War on Terror.

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