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Meta releases data to law enforcement in Nebraska abortion investigation

Yahoo Finance's legal correspondent Alexis Keenan and tech reporter Dan Howley examine the legal precedents of Meta releasing Facebook data to Nebraska authorities to investigate an abortion case.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, a criminal case in Nebraska surrounding a teenager with abortion raising questions about digital privacy. An 18-year-old woman and her mother have been charged with abortion related crimes. One piece of evidence being used against them is data obtained through a search warrant served on Facebook's parent company, Meta.

Let's bring in Yahoo Finance's Alexis Keenan, who's been following the legal angle of all of this. And Alexis, we've already seen Meta come out and say, look, all this outrage directed at us is a bit of a misunderstanding.

ALEXIS KEENAN: Yes, and they have a point. But let's go through what this case is about briefly. So this is about a then 17-year-old girl who was reportedly had a stillbirth, birth of a child. That is what the tips was saying to the investigators, so the investigators checked it out.

The mother of this girl and the young woman at the time confirmed that. Said, yes, I had a stillbirth, but also, we buried the body. So the detective then went on to get a search warrant, and part of that search warrant was data that it wanted from this young woman's account, her Facebook account, and her mother's account.

And just take a look at some of the things that these investigators were asking for. They were asking for the user ID and email, contact information, private message log, IP logs, account creation date, and recent logins, also account postings and undeleted pictures from the accounts, and also, photos where this young woman would have been tagged by others. So a lot of information, and Facebook did, in fact, hand this information over.

Now, what the detective said they were looking for to the judge was to know if there really was a stillbirth or if the child was perhaps asphyxiated. So the information that was originally given by this girl saying that there was a stillbirth turned out not to be true. It turned out that the mother had helped this young woman obtain abortion pills so that the fetus would be aborted. So it turns out not to be true. And Facebook was going under the belief, they say, that they were handing over information related to this stillbirth.

And the problem is, in Nebraska, it's illegal to take a body and bury it and to take skeletal remains and not inform law enforcement about it. So a lot of things going on here. Facebook, for their part, they did give us a statement. They said that those warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation. And the court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby. So they say that we handed it over based on those beliefs.

AKIKO FUJITA: They're saying this is not a decision based on an abortion. These were the facts that were presented to us. And based on that, we actually decided to hand over the information. I want to bring in our tech performer, Dan Howley, who's, obviously, been following the implications on the tech side as well.

And Dan, Alexis has laid out the facts here. But obviously, the outrage around this comes from the concerns that have really been built up around a lot of these tech platforms, not just Meta, but even some of these apps. We talked a lot about the period tracking apps. All the data that you put on these platforms, what can be done with it now that abortion is outlawed in many, many states?

DAN HOWLEY: Yeah, I think one of the big things to talk about-- and this isn't to dismiss the fear of the period tracking apps, but that's not necessarily the biggest fear that experts that I have spoken to have. The bigger fear is all the other apps that use-- in this case, Facebook is a perfect example. As Alexis said, they didn't know that the data that was being taken would be used in the manner that it was.

And I would like just to point out that Facebook goes to great lengths to say that they try to narrow the scope of any data that they are asked to turn over and will push back against it. But the issue is that these different types of apps, the different types of sites that we use are able to collect an enormous amount of information about you.

And since some of that data can be purchased via third party marketplaces, you don't really know where it's going to end up. And so that's the broader fear here for women that their data could be used against them.

Now, Google has taken steps against this. Facebook is taking steps against this to ensure that data with relation to abortion clinics is being protected for certain users. But the larger strategy here is try to use things when it comes to messaging apps like end-to-end encryption so that users, or third parties, rather, can't see what users say. You can try turning off your GPS if you're going to a clinic or something along those lines.

So there's a few things that can be done. But the idea that companies have been collecting a lot of data on us and it could come back to bite us at some point clearly starting to pan out now.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So, Alexis, talk about some of the charges involved here so that we can get some sort of clarity as to where the violations or the allegations are stemming from.

ALEXIS KEENAN: OK, so what ends up happening is through this Facebook warrant and through the search and the data that came back to investigators, they end up charging both this young woman, as well as her mother, with violations of Nebraska's laws. But it's the mother who's on the hook for the law, the new law in Nebraska that outlaws assisting with an abortion after 20 weeks. This woman is reportedly said to have had this abortion at about 28 weeks. That, too, would have exceeded the time frame that Roe versus-- Roe and Casey together would have allowed.

But take a look at those charges. The mother facing charges relating to human skeletal remains-- that's a class 4 felony-- concealing the death of another person, false information, giving it to authorities, and here comes the abortion ones-- abortion. Also, abortion by someone other than a licensed physician. Those two charges, those class 4 felonies, they each carry up to two years in prison. And you'll notice there that the daughter is not carrying that charge because in Nebraska, the law is assisting with the abortion. They go after those who help a woman obtain one, not the woman herself.

AKIKO FUJITA: Alexis, you know, this brings up so many other cases that we have heard before. It's certainly not the first time a tech company has been asked to hand over data in a criminal case. We were talking about the Apple case back in 2015 with the San Bernardino shooter. They were asked to unlock the phone and fought back. I mean, from a tech company perspective, what's the legal line here? I mean, can-- could Meta have just said, look, we're not just going to hand over the information anymore?

ALEXIS KEENAN: Possibly, and that is the key here. And to Dan's point about how much information you put on these platforms and how much can be obtained, well, Facebook does have some discretion here. Facebook or any other tech company does have to take in the warrant and say, is this in line with what we legally need to hand over? They're making a judgment call at the end of the day. So it's really important here.

The broader scope is how much users are going to decide to put on these platforms because they do say they go to great lengths to narrow the information that's being requested, that they review each and every warrant request that comes in to decide for itself how much and if they need to push back. But look, they are making absolutely a judgment call here.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And Dan, I want to ask you because we did see sort of cancel Facebook or delete Facebook trending on Twitter earlier today. What does this mean for the company when you have these social media companies in the middle of this fray where, sometimes, people don't really know what their privacy rights are when they sign up for these platforms?

DAN HOWLEY: Yeah, I think it-- look, Meta is Facebook is going to continue to exist regardless, right? People can launch as many campaigns as they want against social media sites. But the fact of the matter is, people will still continue to use them. So I don't think there's going to be any severe backlash to Facebook or Meta. They did put out a statement, obviously, about this. They turned over the data that they thought was going to be used for a different purpose.

And I think it comes down to how much people themselves want to trust these companies with their own data. You know, it really behooves people to pay attention to the kind of user agreements that they sign up for, or agree to, rather, when they sign up for these sites.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Indeed. Well, a big thank you for breaking all of that down for us. Alexis Keenan and Dan Howley, thank you so much.