Surveillance Capitalism in Post Roe America

Unless you live outside of the United States, it would be impossible to ignore the news of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade. Republicans, Christian nationalists and reactionary conservatives have been pining for it since decades before I was born. Rather than lament the disastrous path that women’s rights in this country is headed down, because rant I can, I am going to focus in on a specific harrowing problem.

Surveillance Capitalism. Broadly, its the concept of using and commodifying personal data collected from our digital lives specifically for making profit. I go out of the way to make this distinction because as a technologist and software developer myself, I am not afraid technology nor the data it collects. I specifically advocate for control over my data, an understanding of who is using it an the desire for the ability to easily opt out. Bonus points for other wish list items like higher interoperability between digital systems.

Rather than bogging us down in technical jargon let’s look at the very real impact this decision has on women. Overturning Roe officially sends the decision on abortion back to the states. Based on their legislatures this means that a simple majority of states are likely to make any form of abortion de facto or de jure illegal.

With the Texas anti-abortion law allowing individuals to bounty hunt for women seeking abortions; we can see downstream impacts not only from government or corporate abuses but also individuals.

Last month, as it became increasingly clear that constitutional abortion protections would soon be eliminated, EFF warned that “service providers can expect a raft of subpoenas and warrants seeking user data that could be employed to prosecute abortion seekers, providers, and helpers.”

The online civil liberties organization also told technology firms to “expect pressure to aggressively police the use of their services,” along with new demands to hand over information to law enforcement as this data “may be classified in many states as facilitating a crime.”

Big Tech silent on data privacy in post-Roe America, The Register (Fri. June 24, 2022)

The dangers are evident even in seemingly innocent metadata. That is, the information surrounding your actual activity such as timestamps, to and from fields like emails and phone numbers, hardware models, location, length of calls etc.

Sure, anti-abortionists may not know that you sought an abortion with certainty. However, if they can subpoena Google for your location data and search history that would be enough to prove at least some basic intent. Even fewer data points could incriminate you, in fact. Perhaps you had your phone records subpoenaed and all anyone could tell was a woman making a phone call to an out of state number that is a known abortion provider. Sure we don’t know the contents of the phone call but we damn well guess. The same way we don’t know what you said on the phone to the Chinese restaurant but we can reasonably infer the service you sought.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) puts out good information about securing your digital life and I’d recommend their primer on security and privacy for people seeking abortion. They have many guides and are current on the most pressing issues facing our digital privacy and I greatly appreciate the work they do.

Well if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right? This classic argument is trotted out anytime someone complains about the gross expansion of the surveillance state. Surely, they think, nobody would ever dare come for them! America has free speech after all, right? As demonstrated above, something once legal has now become illegal in the United States. What’s next, contraception, gay marriage? Justice Thomas Clarence has said that we should revisit the court decisions enumerating the legality of those items. What else could potentially be on the docket? How much of this information such as condom purchases or, more irrevocably, people coming out as LGBTQ online is impossible to bottle back up?

America’s polarizing political climate means that elections are won on paper thin margins. Social media and our culture has exacerbated deep wounds that make us suspicious and more partisan than ever. These things present real risks to people who are vulnerable to authoritarian crackdowns. The government can function as a force for good, and its good to have a tool that lacks the specific profit motive of private companies with massive resources. However, political regimes don’t last long and the tides change very quickly. A politically friendly executive branch may only last four years and a legislature much less. Governmental organizations can take on more militaristic views, similar to police militarization which creates a general adversarial approach to the citizenry. These abuses need not even be systematic, look for example, at the LOVEINT scandal at the NSA where agents were using government resources to stalk love interests.

It’s tempting to see the private sector as the savior here but they’re just as bad. A very large number of enterprise and private IT workloads (exceeding 80%) already have some presence in the clouds of only a few very large providers: Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Oracle. An Amazon software developer was recently convicted of stealing data from Capital One. It’s reasonable to assume that there are many such cases that go undetected because they’re targeted at specific users or small customers. Verizon’s 2022 data breach report shows that over 80% of bad actors steal data for financial reasons. The financial incentives get stronger as more and more of our data is centralized in a few private firms.

There’s a lot here to doom over, and while its tempting to see the tide as totally insurmountable, I do not think we’re totally past the point of no return. In culture, data privacy is starting to pick up some steam. We’ve seen the GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California act as some simple backstops allowing us to delete more of our data from these providers. There’s simple things that the tech savvy people in our lives, myself included, can do to help. We can educate without inundating, we can set up simple alternatives or better default settings for family and friends. We can offer up discussions and opportunities to try new things. We can apply political pressure to crack down on bad actors AND beat back authoritarians at the ballot box.

In the future posts I will elaborate on some specific ways to address some of these topics. I will attempt to categorize them as beginner, intermediate and advanced in terms of complexity to implement. I am also working on some code solutions to offer to our most technical users.

These are trying times where people’s lives may be at risk and technology is going away. It’s better to embrace the good and throw out the bad, but we must be swift and discerning and vigilant.