Abortion and Digital Privacy: How To Protect Ourselves
Technology can be a double-edged sword. For those seeking abortion information or care, it can be a way to connect to vital resources like abortion funds, abortion providers or supportive friends. On the other hand, things like our phones and laptops can store a ton of information about us and what we’ve been doing with them.
As more and more states criminalize abortion, the amount of surveillance, and the negative consequences of that surveillance, are going to increase. That’s just a sad fact. With that in mind, we’ve put together some basics on how to protect your privacy during each step of the process of seeking abortion help. We made this with reproductive care in mind, but many of the steps here also apply to situations like abusive relationships and the increased criminalization of trans people, families and healthcare.
This might all seem really stressful and overwhelming. You might be wondering: why go through all this just for a doctor’s appointment or to take some medication? It is absolutely valid to feel that way: it’s ridiculous that we have to consider any of these things when trying to access basic medical care. But in states where abortion care is restricted or criminalized, lawmakers, prosecutors, and law enforcement will use anything they can get their hands on – including any digital footprint we might leave behind – to prove that we’ve broken the law by accessing care.
Before we jump into the details, a few important caveats.
Just like abortion laws, the level of surveillance one might be subjected to varies from state to state. Too, as privacy and abortion rights activists push for greater protections, the laws around both abortion and privacy may be in flux for some time. Most importantly, there's no way to completely remove the risk of seeking or aiding abortion in places where it’s illegal or heavily restricted. If you’re unsure of the legal risks associated with something or need help navigating abortion laws, the Repro Legal Helpline is an excellent resource.
When You’re Researching Options
Whether you’re looking for a clinic, a network than can get you out of state, or an organization that can provide you with the medications for a self-managed medical abortion, the more you can keep that search out of your digital history, the better. Here are the main ways to do that:
- Secure your phone: This is going to come up a lot in the advice here. Most people use their phones for everything, and that means you want to make it as secure as you possibly can. To start, if you don’t have a pin number for unlocking your phone, set one. Think about it like setting a password for your email; you want it to be something you can remember but that’s hard for someone else to guess. If you’re using your face or your fingerprint to unlock your phone, disable that function and switch to a pin; you have more legal protections against someone coercing you into using your pin than using your face or finger to unlock your phone. You also want to install a browser (the app you use to search the internet) on your phone that prioritizes privacy. The Digital Defense Fund recommends Firefox Focus, because it blocks trackers and doesn’t sell user data.
- Opt out of personalized ads: Ever stared longingly at the listing for a rad looking t-shirt, only to feel like ads for that t-shirt then turn up everywhere? You’re not imagining it; companies like Google and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) track our online activities in order to provide ads that will appeal to us. But if you’ve been searching for information on pregnancy or abortion, you don’t want all your ads to suddenly be related to those topics. Digital Defense Fund’s guide includes the steps for disabling targeted ads.
- Be search savvy on your computer: If you’re using a computer rather than your phone, you’ll want to use tools that leave as little of a trail as possible. One way to do that is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which moves your internet activity through their services instead of your normal internet provider. An even more secure way is to use the TOR browser, which masks the origin point of your internet activity. Be aware that because those techniques are also favored by trolls, some organizations may auto-ban accounts that use them, preventing you from registering for their services.
If those options aren’t available to you (or you’re worried having them on a shared computer might raise questions), you still have ways of protecting your privacy. Use Duck-Duck-Go, Brave, or Firefox instead of Google and Chrome when you search, increase the privacy settings on whatever browser you’re using, and move yourself to an incognito window or tab. And remember, you can always manually clear your search history.
- Go to the library to do things online: This technique can be especially helpful if your devices at home are monitored by a parent or partner. Libraries generally go out of their way to prioritize privacy, and library computers are configured to wipe things like browsing history after each session or during the night.
- Be mindful on social media: For a lot of us, it’s almost second nature to turn to our social media networks for help or information. And your specific circumstances may mean social media is your safest option for locating or making contact with abortion funds or similar networks. If you make contact with an abortion fund on their social media, move to a more secure channel–we’ll cover those in the next section–as soon as you can.
In addition to those digital steps, there are some other considerations to keep in mind when researching your options.
- Look for existing, well-established networks: People have been building abortion access networks for decades. If you’re looking for help or information, those networks are a safer place to start because they’ve had practice helping clients who have privacy concerns. Too, using vetted networks rather than random people on social media or untested networks helps you maintain your overall privacy and safety.
- Watch out for fake clinics: Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are places that exist to prevent people from accessing abortion care by pretending to offer some form of reproductive healthcare themselves. In addition to spreading misinformation and using scare tactics to pressure people out of abortions, CPCs actively collect information on visitors and track them. The Feminist Women’s Health Center has a guide for spotting CPCs, and using tools like I Need An A or Plan C will help you locate legitimate, supportive care.
When Coordinating Care
If you’ve decided on an abortion, you’ll be working out logistics, whether that’s getting to the nearest clinic or working with a trusted friend who’s going to be there for you when you self-manage a medical abortion. Those next steps come with privacy considerations of their own.
- Protect your phone calls: If you’re calling a clinic to schedule your appointment, download an app like Signal that provides encrypted calling options so that your conversations cannot be traced or recorded. The same goes for calling an abortion fund or other resources like for transit or lodging (even if it’s a hotel you’re booking yourself) to plan your trip. Encourage any friends helping you with your abortion – like driving you to the clinic or offering support afterward – to do the same and use these apps to communicate.
- Don’t save the date: Don’t log your appointment on any digital calendars; if you use Google Calendar for example, or any scheduling or to do list apps, keep information about your abortion offline – that means nothing about pads or aftercare on your shopping list apps and no time blocked out on your calendar apps. If you have to keep track of your appointment or anything you’ll need to buy to prepare or recover, do so on paper lists and calendars. Keep track of them and when you’re all set, shred or rip them up as best you can, and throw them out. Remind anyone who’s helping you to do the same.
- Skip social media: Don’t post anything on the day of your abortion that could indicate you’ve been at the clinic or self-managed at home. In the days following the procedure, be vague about what’s going on in your life; don’t give details about recovering or anything else related to abortion.
- Plan what to say: If you need to take time off work, consider whether you want to have an excuse ready to go if you feel like you’re going to be asked. Taking a sick or vacation day should be all the details your employer needs, but try to think ahead for what you might say if someone puts you on the spot.
- Pay with cash: Whenever possible, pay for care, lodging, transportation, gas, and any other costs related to abortion care with cash. Digital payment methods and debit/credit cards can be traced back to people in a way cash can’t.
During the actual process
If you’re receiving abortion care that involves accessing a clinic, there are some steps you can take to protect your privacy during that moment.
- Disable anything that tracks your location: This is most likely to be your phone. If you need to travel out of state for an abortion or go to a clinic, you’ll want to go into your settings and turn off location sharing or things like “find my phone.” That way, there won’t be a record of where you went. If you let someone in your life know about where you are for your safety, pick someone you can just tell verbally.
- Make yourself harder to identify: Even in states where abortion is legal or protected, clinic protestors often go out of their way to try and identify individuals who are visiting the clinic. One protection against this is to make yourself harder to identify; wear sunglasses and a hat to help conceal your face, and cover any tattoos. If someone is coming with you to offer support, make sure they do the same.
Clinic protestors also have a history of photographing license plates of both providers and patients, which can be used to identify you. If possible, find a place to park a ways away from a clinic and then walk to your appointment, or arrange with either a trusted person or a member of an access network to drop you off and pick you up at a nearby location. Depending on where you live, public transit like trains or buses may be an option. If you choose to use them, don’t use anything like a transit card that’s linked to your name or payment information. If you can, use cash to buy a ticket.
If you’re assisting people with their abortion(s)
- All of the above: Enlist all the same security measures we just went over above that you would if you were getting the abortion yourself.
- Lock down your communication: Use secure messaging apps to communicate about making plans via text. Talk on the phone or in person to make plans whenever possible and delete all your correspondence after the fact.
- Be mindful of who you tell: In addition to taking the technology safety measures, it’s important to keep the circle of people who know your plans tight – ideally between yourself and the person you’re bringing. Have a solid explanation for people when they ask how you’re spending the day; it doesn’t even have to be a big lie or a fancy story – maybe you’re going to the beach with friends, or maybe you’re going to grab some takeout and stay home.
- Don’t give away your location: In addition to disabling your tracking on apps etc, be sure not to take pictures on the day of or post at all on social media in a way that could indicate your location. While you’re waiting for the person, don’t send any snapchats or selfies to friends from the clinic – anything that might give away where you are in the moment.
- Helping with self-managed abortion: If the person you’re helping is having a medication abortion, make a post-abortion recovery plan; try to coordinate your work schedules so you can be there for them in the first day or two as the medication takes effect.
- Medication abortion is incredibly safe and the risk that you will need to seek emergency medical care is very, very slim, but it is important to have a plan in place about what to do in the case the person you’re assisting needs to go to see a doctor or to the emergency room. Do they want you to call an ambulance or do they want you to drive them? Is there a provider or abortion doula you can have on call in case questions arise (and what’s the safest way to contact them)? What will you tell healthcare providers about the reason you need emergency care?
- Make a comfort plan: Talk to the person you’re helping ahead of time and ask them what kind of things they might want and need throughout, including afterward, to help them feel comfortable, supported and safe. Do they want someone to stay with them for some or all of it? Be with them to help get the medications and other supplies? Or do they want privacy, maybe with regular check-ins? What nice things can you help arrange for them — like favorite movies, their comfort foods, clean sheets for a nicely made bed for resting after? Ask them about these kinds of things and more to find out. It might also be less texting for them to just write or text you a list. We have a super handy article on more ways to support someone as they’re going through an abortion coming soon!
The abortion access landscape is shifting, and will continue to be fraught and stressful for the foreseeable future. That sucks and, quite frankly, is freaking scary. But one way to push back against that stress and that scariness is to know how to be there for and look after each other and for ourselves as well as we can in the event we need abortion care.