Facebook, Google Supplied User Data to Help Police Locate ‘Abortion Seekers’ in the United States?

On March 5 2023, popular posts on Reddit’s r/technology and r/politics featured an article claiming that Google and Facebook (Meta) supplied user data to police prosecuting “abortion seekers”:

Both posts and a popular tweet from March 5 2023 linked to the same article:

Fact Check

Claim: Google and Facebook (Meta) provided user data to police departments to aid the prosecution of users seeking abortions in the United States.

Description: The claim is about the supposed provision of user data from Google and Facebook (Meta) to police departments. The data was intended to aid in the prosecution of those seeking abortions in the United States. Posts from Reddit and a tweet in 2023 contained the claim, pointing back to articles on BusinessInsider.com and TechCrunch.com that elaborated the case.


Rating Explanation: The claim suggests an involvement of Google and Facebook in supplying user data to aid police prosecutions. It’s based on articles that reported on a particular case in Nebraska, where Meta (Facebook’s parent company) confirmed they provided data upon receipt of valid legal warrants. However, there’s no clear indication of Google’s involvement in the case.

The article, which was published on March 4 2023 by BusinessInsider.com, began by pointing to pending prosecution in the state of Nebraska, with a “key piece of evidence” in the form of data supplied by Facebook/Meta:

As abortion bans across the [United States] are implemented and enforced, law enforcement is turning to social-media platforms to build cases to prosecute women seeking abortions or abortion-inducing medication — and online platforms like Google and Facebook are helping.

This spring [of 2023], a woman named Jessica Burgess and her daughter will stand trial in Nebraska after being accused of performing an illegal abortion — with a key piece of evidence provided by Meta, the parent company of Facebook. Prosecutors said Burgess helped her daughter find and take pills that would induce an abortion. The teenage Burgess also faces charges of illegally disposing of the fetus’ remains.

TechCrunch reported that internal chat logs were provided to law-enforcement officers by the social-media company, which indicated the pair had discussed their plan to find the medication through the app.

BusinessInsider.com referenced and linked to a January 27 2023 article from technology news outlet TechCrunch, “How U.S. police use digital data to prosecute abortions.” TechCrunch’s reporting was broader in scope, connecting the uptick in abortion-related data requests to the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson decision.

TechCrunch also used the Nebraska case as its first example, reporting:

In late April [2022], police in Nebraska received a tip saying 17-year-old Celeste Burgess had given birth to a stillborn baby and buried the body. Officers soon learned that her mother, Jessica Burgess, and a friend had helped her with transportation and burial. The police issued citations for concealing the death of another person and false reporting. But in June [2022], they also charged Jessica with providing an abortion for her teenage daughter. Police had made the discovery after obtaining a warrant that required Meta to hand over their conversations on Facebook Messenger. The messages, which were not encrypted, showed the two had discussed obtaining and using abortion pills.

Warrants for digital data are routine in police investigations, which makes sense, given how much time we spend online. Technology giants have for years responded to valid court orders for specific information sought by law enforcement, though some companies have done more to fight for our privacy than others. Millions of people now use apps that encrypt their calls and messages, like Signal and WhatsApp, so that no one can access their messages — not even the providers themselves.

The case in Nebraska is not the first in which police have used digital data to prosecute an abortion, and it won’t be the last. While digital data is rarely the main form of evidence, prosecutors use it to paint a picture in court; by showing messages sent to friends, internet searches or emails from an online pharmacy. As in the Burgess case, however, it’s often people around the women who first notify the authorities — a doctor or nurse, a family member or a friend of a friend.

After providing several other examples of data retrieval in the prosecution of abortion-related activity, TechCrunch proposed ways for platforms like Facebook to remain compliant with subpoenas while also protecting the medical privacy of users:

Technology companies may not have many options for handling search warrants from the police, even when the investigations relate to abortion. But companies do get to decide how much digital data they collect about people and for how long they store the information. They also get to decide whether to offer end-to-end encryption, which would give people increased privacy for all of their messages … [In 2022,] reporters found that Facebook and anti-abortion clinics collect sensitive information on would-be patients. The Markup also reported that Hey Jane, an online abortion pill provider, employed a series of online trackers that follow users across the internet — until the journalists reached out about the practice. More recently, ProPublica found nine pharmacies selling abortion pills also sharing sensitive data with Google and other third-parties. All nine were recommended by Plan C, which provides information about how to get abortion pills by mail. None responded to ProPublica’s request for comment.

In the excerpt above, “reporters found” linked to an in-depth TheMarkup.org investigation on social media and abortion data. It was published on June 15 2022 — after the Dobbs decision was leaked (but before it was finalized), saying the decision heralded a vast array of privacy risks barreling at American users of social media:

Facebook is collecting ultrasensitive personal data about abortion seekers and enabling anti-abortion organizations to use that data as a tool to target and influence people online, in violation of its own policies and promises.

In the wake of a leaked Supreme Court opinion signaling the likely end of nationwide abortion protections, privacy experts are sounding alarms about all the ways people’s data trails could be used against them if some states criminalize abortion.

A joint investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Markup found that the world’s largest social media platform is already collecting data about people who visit the websites of hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers, which are quasi-health clinics, mostly run by religiously aligned organizations whose mission is to persuade people to choose an option other than abortion.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, prohibits websites and apps that use Facebook’s advertising technology from sending Facebook “sexual and reproductive health” data. After investigations by The Wall Street Journal in 2019 and New York state regulators in 2021, the social media giant created a machine-learning system to help detect sensitive health data and blocked data that contained any of 70,000 health-related terms.

But Reveal and The Markup have found Facebook’s code on the websites of hundreds of anti-abortion clinics. Using Blacklight, a Markup tool that detects cookies, keyloggers, and other types of user-tracking technology on websites, Reveal analyzed the sites of nearly 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers—with data provided by the University of Georgia—and found that at least 294 shared visitor information with Facebook. In many cases, the information was extremely sensitive—for example, whether a person was considering abortion or looking to get a pregnancy test or emergency contraceptives.

In a statement to Reveal and The Markup, Facebook spokesperson Dale Hogan said, “It is against our policies for websites and apps to send sensitive information about people through our Business Tools,” which includes its advertising technology. “Our system is designed to filter out potentially sensitive data it detects, and we work to educate advertisers on how to properly set up our Business Tools.” Facebook declined to answer detailed questions about its filtering systems and policies on data from crisis pregnancy centers. It’s unknown whether the filters caught any of the data, but our investigation showed a significant amount made its way to Facebook.

On August 9 2022, Facebook/Meta’s “Newsroom” issued a press release titled, “Correcting the Record on Meta’s Involvement in Nebraska Case.” It was short, and in it, the platform confirmed it had indeed supplied data to authorities in Nebraska:

Much of the reporting about Meta’s role in a criminal case against a mother and daughter in Nebraska is plain wrong. We want to take the opportunity to set the record straight.

We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7 [2022], before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The warrants did not mention abortion at all. Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.

On June 23 2022, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a guide, “Security and Privacy Tips for People Seeking An Abortion.” That guide focused on ways people seeking reproductive healthcare and abortion services could safeguard their digital health data, and opened with a prescient reminder that the EFF was not yet certain how platforms would handle requests for user data:

Given the shifting state of the law, people seeking an abortion, or any kind of reproductive healthcare that might end with the termination of a pregnancy, may need to pay close attention to their digital privacy and security. We’ve previously covered how those involved in the abortion access movement can keep themselves and their communities safe. We’ve also laid out a principled guide for platforms to respect user privacy and rights to bodily autonomy. This post is a guide specifically for anyone seeking an abortion and worried about their digital privacy. There is a lot of crossover with the tips outlined in the previously mentioned guides; many tips bear repeating.

We are not yet sure how companies may respond to law enforcement requests for any abortion related data, and you may not have much control over their choices. But you can do a lot to control who you are giving your information to, what kind of data they get, and how it might be connected to the rest of your digital life.

Some of the practical tips include using burner phones to access data; turning off biometric encryption on your phone if you think there is a chance it might be seized; and properly scrubbing data from your devices.

A viral March 4 2023 BusinessInsider.com article reported that Google and Facebook (Meta) provided user data to police investigating people “seeking abortions.” The piece drew from a January 2023 TechCrunch.com report on abortion and user data. In August 2022, Meta issued a press release confirming it supplied information to investigators in Nebraska after receiving “valid legal warrants,” and just prior to the Dobbs decision in June 2022.