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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

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Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

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The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

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As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

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Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

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Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

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Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

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