Facebook gave US police access to private messages in abortion case against mother and daughter
Facebook has sparked outrage by complying with US police probing an abortion case, boosting simmering fears the platform and its "private" messages will be a tool for clamping down on the procedure.
Criticism emerged after media reports revealed the social networking giant had turned over messages that were key to a mother being criminally charged over an abortion for her daughter.
The Nebraska woman helped her teenage daughter end her pregnancy at about 24 weeks and discussed on Facebook's messaging service plans to burn the foetus afterwards.
In one of the messages, the woman tells her then 17-year-old daughter that she has obtained abortion pills and gives her instructions on how to take them to end the pregnancy.
The daughter, meanwhile, "talks about how she can't wait to get the 'thing' out of her body", a detective wrote in court documents.
"I will finally be able to wear jeans," she says in one of the messages.
After America's top court revoked the national right to abortion in late June, there were warnings about such a use of personal information, with big tech companies holding a trove of data on users' locations and behaviour.
The right to an abortion in the United States comes from a landmark court decision made in the 1970s, known as the Roe v Wade case.
The mother faces five charges — including one under a 2010 law which only allows abortion up to 20 weeks after fertilisation.
The daughter, who is now 18, is being charged as an adult at prosecutors' request.
She faces three charges, including one of concealing or abandoning a corpse.
Yet Facebook owner Meta defended itself Tuesday by noting the Nebraska court order "didn't mention abortion at all".
The social media giant said it came before the Supreme Court's highly divisive decision in June to overturn Roe v Wade, the case which conferred the right to abortion in the United States.
"That sentence would seem to imply that *if* the search warrants mentioned abortion, there would be a different result. But of course, that's not true," tweeted Logan Koepke, who researches how technology impacts issues like criminal justice.
He also said, "Unless Meta is announcing a new policy that they will object to search warrants seeking information in abortion-related investigations (which they are not), that sentence means nothing."
When queried about handing over the data, the Silicon Valley giant pointed to its policy of complying with government requests when "the law requires us to do so".
Nebraska's restrictions were adopted years before Roe was overturned. Some 16 states have outright bans or limits in the early weeks of pregnancy in their jurisdictions.
For tech world watchers, the Nebraska case surely won't be the last.
"This is going to keep happening to companies that have vast amounts of data about people across the country and around the world," said Alexandra Givens, CEO of the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology.
She went on to note that if companies receive a duly-issued legal request, under a valid law, there are strong incentives for them to want to comply with that request.
"The companies at a minimum have to make sure that they're insisting on a full legal process, that warrants are specific and not a fishing expedition, searches are very narrowly construed and that they notify users so that users can try to push back," Ms Givens added.
Meta did not provide the Nebraska court's order.
The police filing asked the judge to order the company not to tell the 18-year-old daughter about the search warrant for her Facebook messages.
"I have reason to believe that notifying the subscriber or customer of the issuance of this search warrant may result in the destruction of or tampering with evidence," police detective Ben McBride wrote.
He told the court he began investigating "concerns" in late April that the daughter had given birth prematurely to a "stillborn child", which they allegedly buried together.
Advocates noted that apart from not using Meta's products, one sure way to keep users' communications out of government hands would be for them to be automatically encrypted.
Meta-owned WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, which means the company does not have access to the information, but that level of privacy protection is not the default setting on Facebook messenger.
"The company has never said it would not comply with a request from law enforcement in a situation related to abortions," said Caitlin Seeley George, a campaign director at the advocacy group Fight for the Future.
"If users could rely on encrypted messaging, Meta wouldn't even be in a position where they could share conversations," she added.
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