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Abortion: Companies ‘have to consider how they’re going to comply with legal requests’, expert says

CSIS Fellow Caitlin Chin explains how tech companies may react if law enforcement requests for access to private information, like period-tracking data, in the wake of the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Video Transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, the overturn of Roe versus Wade is sending ripples through the privacy world, as tech companies grapple with how to protect employee privacy and data. Joining us now to discuss this is Caitlin Chin, Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow. Thank you for joining us. So what do people need to know from this point on in the coming months about the implications of what they search for online?

CAITLIN CHIN: Well, first of all, I think the immediate impact for consumers-- and what I'm worried-- most worried about is a chilling effect. Right now, there is just a lot of uncertainty in America-- which states have trigger laws that might go into effect, which states are considering new legislation and new restrictions. I think that this patchwork of bills and laws are really complicated. And many people are understandably deleting their period tracking apps or refraining from searching for information about abortion clinics or Planned Parenthood.

And so I think that the result is that many people may cut themselves off from access to important reproductive health information that they may need. And in the near-term, that's something that I'm very concerned about.

SEANA SMITH: And Caitlin, what have you been hearing from companies? Have we heard anything? I know some of the bigger names out there, like Google, Amazon, some of the larger companies that track-- that certainly have a lot of our data have remained largely silent on this issue. But have we heard anything from some of the smaller players in this space, some of those smaller apps?

CAITLIN CHIN: So far, we're still waiting for the most part. This decision really has put businesses in a difficult position. Every year, law enforcement agencies issue thousands of legal requests for data to private companies, including at the state and local levels. And now companies need to consider how they're going to comply with legal requests, and also, for companies that do have voluntary contracts to share data with government agencies, whether to continue to do so.

DAVE BRIGGS: So we haven't heard much from the companies. What about law enforcement officials? Is there any indication that they want to pursue this privacy, this data, and that they have the resources to do it?

CAITLIN CHIN: I think what we're really seeing is that the United States is deeply divided. All 50 states are considering how they individually will deal with the outcome and implications of this decision. There are some states that are indicating interest in pursuing new abortion restrictions and passing new legislation, and others that are saying that our state will be a safe haven for anybody who chooses to get an abortion. So I think that states are also really reevaluating their current resources for either restricting or enabling reproductive health decisions. And in the future, we'll see how that turns out.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then, what are some of the most secure ways if you do want to sort of do your research or get this information without feeling like your information is going to be shared and sold to third party companies?

CAITLIN CHIN: That's a really difficult question. And I think the problem is that there are just so many different entities that collect data now. Our society is built around the internet. People often get their information from the internet. But it's not just big companies like Google or Facebook that collect data and can potentially share that data with the government.

Perhaps it's websites and mobile apps that are tracking your online activity or smaller-- or fitness devices, for example, that may be collecting geolocation data. And I think since there are so many avenues for somebody's personal data to be involuntarily shared with others, it's just really, really difficult for somebody to get information they need and know that that information will definitely be 100% secure.