November 27, 2022

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It's the Technology

Facebook, Google, Amazon silent on data collection after Roe ruling

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Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, tech workers and privacy advocates had a big question: Will Big Tech help in abortion prosecutions by sharing user data with police?

Nearly a week since the Supreme Court made abortion illegal for millions of Americans, the companies still haven’t given an answer. And some employees are getting frustrated, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

On Monday, an Amazon employee posted a petition internally that called for “immediate and decisive action against the threat to our basic human rights with the overturning of Roe v. Wade.” Microsoft and Google employees on internal message boards have vented frustration at their leaders’ silence. Some Facebook employees, who were told in May by managers not to discuss abortion on internal platforms, are also angry.

Those tech giants and others have amassed reams of data on billions of people as they worked to grow their businesses and dominate the internet. At the same time, governments and police forces around the world have increasingly targeted these huge pools of data, sending search warrants to the companies and extracting digital evidence to bolster investigations and prosecutions.

For years, privacy advocates have raised concerns about this massive data trove, full of private messages, political affiliations and even sensitive health data. Now that type of information could be used to find, arrest and prosecute those getting or abetting abortions. And some tech employees are agitating internally for companies to take measures to protect users.

Abortion is now banned in these states. Others will follow.

“Digital evidence has just revolutionized how criminal investigations are conducted in this country,” said Catherine Crump, a law professor and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC-Berkeley’s law school. “We live our lives online, we leave digital breadcrumbs of our prior activities, and of course those are going to be caught up in abortion investigations.”

Tech companies will almost certainly comply with state law and hand over information from legal court orders, but they should be transparent with their users and the public when they do and disclose how many abortion-related court orders they get, Crump added.

In the past five years, all of the companies except Microsoft have seen government requests for data in the U.S. double, according to their own reports on how much data they share with law enforcement. Google fielded 50,907 requests from January to June last year, nearly four times the number it got during the same period in 2016. About 82 percent of those requests resulted in Google sharing some information.

The firms say they fight back when requests are overly broad and provide only information that the law requires them to. None has specifically mentioned abortion in public statements yet. In emails to employees, managers at Google, Microsoft and Amazon acknowledged that the court’s decision may be difficult for many employees but did not make commitments about data-sharing.

“We carefully scrutinize all government requests for user information and often push back, including in court,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. “We only respond to legal requests for information in accordance with applicable law and our terms and we provide notice to users whenever permitted.”

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Google, Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. Microsoft declined to comment. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The overturning of Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years of legal abortion in the United States has set off protests and reinvigorated calls from liberals for Democrats to take action, including by adding more Supreme Court justices and ending the Senate filibuster. The legal battle isn’t over, with judges in Utah and Louisiana temporarily blocking abortion bans from taking effect.

Small groups of tech workers have in the past been able to rally support inside their companies and push leaders to make changes.

After protests in 2018, Google stopped working with the Pentagon on military artificial intelligence, and an employee walkout at the company that year led to the search giant ending its policy of requiring employees to settle sexual harassment claims through arbitration. Amazon employees have protested the company’s role in exacerbating climate change, and employees at Apple have started a movement dubbed #AppleToo.

Disputes over diversity initiatives or content moderation policies have led to bitter fights inside tech companies, including the leaking of personal information about co-workers, but abortion rights have not been a major source of debate. Many workers say the companies have become less responsive to employee protests, leading to a sense of resignation among some of them.

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Following the Supreme Court’s decision last week, some Google employees on an internal forum asked management to reconsider its data-sharing and collection processes, according to one of the people familiar with the discussions. Managers didn’t respond. Similar conversations were happening on internal Microsoft communication platforms, where some employees said the company should take a stronger stand to protect data from being used in abortion prosecutions, another of the people said.

In a statement, the Alphabet Workers Union, a collection of Google employees and contractors affiliated with the Communications Workers of America union, said they wanted more action from the company.

“What users are concerned about, in light of this ruling, is that Google will pass information on their searches, communications, and location history to law enforcement and that this data will be used to criminalize those seeking abortions,” said Parul Koul, a Google software engineer and member of the Alphabet Workers Union. “Google has completely failed to address this concern. We demand that Google refuse to store any data that could be used to prosecute users in the U.S. exercising their bodily autonomy.”

“Workers are concerned about the disconnect between Google’s stated support of abortion access and Google’s disregard for the vulnerability of contract workers, continued financial support of antiabortion politicians, and refusal to establish privacy protocols to protect Google users interested in learning more about reproductive justice and abortion access,” the AWU statement said.

At Amazon, the worker petition had 1,617 signatures by Wednesday evening. It demands that Amazon denounce the overturning of Roe, sponsor abortion rights protests, match donations to abortion-access and bail-fund groups, allow employees to relocate if they live in states with trigger laws, cease operating in those states, and stop donating to politicians or political action committees that oppose abortion.

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“This company has the numbers to make a huge difference for the better,” one employee wrote in the comments of the petition, screenshots of which were obtained by The Post. “And the longer we sit in silence and do the absolute minimum, the more I lose my trust in this company.”

Other employees raised new questions about Amazon’s response. One asked whether Amazon’s health-care initiatives, Amazon Care and Amazon Pharmacy, will continue to provide customers with medication abortion or emergency contraception, such as Plan B. Another asked whether Alexa user data could be subpoenaed.

On Wednesday, diversity, equity and inclusion manager John Quintas responded to the petition, saying “with 1.6 million employees, there are a lot of different viewpoints on employees’ personal medical needs. We will pass on the feedback shared here to leaders for their consideration.”

Business Insider first reported on the petition.

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Facebook leaders have discussed legal strategies to respond to the decision since a draft version leaked in May, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

Still, the company hasn’t made its plans public, and some employees say they’ve been blocked from having a free and open discussion about the company’s response because of the limits on discussing abortion internally, another of the people said.

Those limits, which stem from a May 5 memo about the company’s Respectful Communications Policy that was circulated by senior executive Naomi Gleit, steered employees away from discussing abortion on company channels. Gleit said employees were allowed to “participate in a listening session of up to 5 like-minded people to show solidarity” or to interact one to one.

The internal consternation at the tech giants coincides with a time in which they are also facing numerous lawsuits by federal and state authorities, as well as new antitrust legislation meant to decrease the power of Big Tech.

“The political complication is that some of the companies don’t want to antagonize state attorneys general who are involved in the antitrust cases,” said Nu Wexler, a former Facebook and Twitter communications manager.

There are clear steps the companies could take to limit the potential for law enforcement officials to use the data they collect on their users in abortion prosecutions, said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet civil rights group.

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First off, they could limit the data collected on people, especially when it comes to abortion and health care, Galperin said. The data they do collect should be deleted as soon as possible, she said. The companies could also allow people to use their tools without appending their real names to their accounts.

“Requiring people to have a bunch of very potentially incriminating information gathered about them linked directly to their real identity is especially harmful to vulnerable populations,” she added.

Advocates are also pushing the tech companies to change how they handle propaganda and misinformation related to abortion on their platforms.

In early June, a report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate found that in states with abortion “trigger laws,” 11 percent of Google search results for abortion services led users to nonmedical facilities that don’t provide abortion and often try to dissuade patients from getting one. For Google Maps, the result was 37 percent of searches.

Abortion rights advocates have accused antiabortion politicians of spreading misinformation to confuse people about what is and isn’t legal.

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Google, Facebook and other tech companies have put links to scientific information about the coronavirus on posts mentioning the pandemic and vaccines, and they could do the same when it comes to abortion, said Erin Matson, executive director of Reproaction, an abortion rights advocacy group.

“They absolutely should be doing this on abortion, as well,” she said. “The abortion war is going to be fought online.”

Some advocates say the companies should simply disregard requests for abortion-related data. Facebook stopped handing over user data to Hong Kong after the Chinese government imposed a law in the territory that limited dissent and led to the arrest of many activists and politicians.

Meredith Whittaker, NYU professor and faculty director of the AI Now Institute and a former Google employee, expressed deep skepticism at the idea that tech companies would make the changes necessary to block law enforcement from getting the data of consumers seeking abortion.

“Surveillance advertising is the heart of tech’s business model,” Whittaker said. “This means that collecting, creating, and exploiting data is not ‘optional.’ There is no history of tech companies taking meaningful ethical steps when these would undermine their business model.”

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