Privacy in an Age Without Any

I join millions of Americans—the vast majority in fact—in feeling both dismay and anxiety at the near certainty that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. Abortion is not a subject for the editorial scope of this blog, but because the issue historically intersects the right of privacy—and because enforcement of the most draconian laws now on the books in several states implies substantial invasions of privacy—it is worth asking what happens next in a society that has largely sacrificed privacy to its technological toys?

In 1992, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as part of the Madison Lecture series, discussed the assailable weaknesses in Roe, including her view that it was decided on the wrong question—the implied right of privacy rather than an affirmative right of non-discrimination. She further argued that Roe was so overbroad an opinion that it stymied judicial and political progress at the time, trending toward mitigating or ending sex-based discrimination. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable,” Ginsburg wrote before contrasting Roe with contemporaneous decisions that she believed supported a more solid, if narrower, holding.

Although I personally agree with Justice Ginsburg that privacy was not the ideal foundation on which to base a woman’s right to seek an abortion, Roe’s unstable purchase on the privacy right comes in a moment when, for all practical purposes, privacy does not exist.* And regardless of the constitutional questions raised by Ginsburg et al., both the tenor and the letter of the state laws being written or discussed reek of religious fundamentalism and medieval encroachments into the most personal matters of people’s lives. And we must acknowledge the implications of enforcing those laws in the age of the cellphone and the social media profile.

What started with reconnecting with old friends via Facebook bloomed into so much personal data—even information shared unintentionally—that algorithms can not only predict outcomes, they can be used to effect outcomes. There is no need to reiterate the many world events thus far shaped by the manipulation of Facebook data alone. But suffice to say that if some well-financed interest wants to know the intimate details of a complete stranger’s sex life—or the same about a whole community (e.g., all the women at a particular college)—we have already shared more than enough information for an algorithm to produce fairly accurate results.

I don’t think it is farfetched to say that we are past the point when a state actor or political action group can theoretically purchase data which can then be used to predict when a woman intends to end a pregnancy, let alone know whether she already has. Add this to the kind of vigilantism being codified into state laws, and the harm beyond the abortion right itself flows into every vein of our civil liberties.

If Texas or Missouri, for instance, seeks to proscribe access to pharmaceutical abortion and/or travel out of state for a procedure, does this imply that women will need to abandon their right to maintain social media profiles or that they’ll need to use burner phones like drug dealers just so they can make their own medical decisions? The interpretive capacity of AI has already proven to be highly effective and dangerous. No woman needs to announce over Twitter that she’s on her way to the clinic. On the contrary, Google’s promise to “know you better than you know yourself” is only partly a PR statement because the boast correctly describes how powerful data interpretation at scale can be.

Outlandish fears? I doubt it. Not based on the evidence so far. Increased harassment of women—including crossover from cyberspace to real space—is already a sad reality of life plus social media. And there is no reason to believe that the intersection of misogyny and anti-abortion zeal will not be amplified and extended through the use of these technologies.

Whether Ginsburg et al. are correct that Roe galvanized the anti-abortion movement into a force that otherwise may not have materialized, it cannot be denied that the fervor of that opposition today is willing to deploy any tools available in the pursuit of its crusade. In a time when we should be criminalizing abuse of these technologies to spy on, harass, or surveil our neighbors, the state laws upheld by overturning Roe all point us in the opposite direction.

* I do not mean to imply that this Court would uphold abortion rights under any claim, but merely illustrate a distinction from the privacy foundation.

Image by: kentoh

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