After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, legislators in several states promised to pass laws that would cause women to be prosecuted even if their procedures occurred in another state.
And now those prosecutions could be aided by an unexpected source—the patients’ own web browsing history—concludes a team of researchers from Penn and Carnegie Mellon University.
More than 99% of abortion clinic web pages studied in May included widely used code that transferred user data to a median of nine external entities, which in turn could sell the data or provide it to law enforcement, according to the team’s research letter, published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The clinics may not even be aware that visitors’ data is being disseminated since the practice is so standard across the web.
While the Penn-CMU team urged consumers to install tracking-blocking browser extensions and adjust privacy settings on browsers and smartphones, those actions are unlikely to provide enough protection, says Ari Friedman and Matthew McCoy, co-authors and senior fellows of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, Penn’s hub for health policy research.
Abortion clinics need to audit their websites and remove third party trackers immediately, says Friedman and McCoy, who are part of the Penn-CMU Digital Health Privacy Initiative.
“The first thing the clinics should do is figure out what trackers they have on their website and get rid of them. It’s our supposition that a lot of people running these clinics probably have no idea what trackers are on their websites,” says McCoy. “In the meantime, there are things individuals can do like use browser plug-ins that limit trackers. But that’s always going to be a second-best solution.”
This story is by Karl Stark. Read more at Penn LDI.