Friday 5 January 2024

by Zelly Martin, Martin J. Riedl, Samuel C. Woolley

Martin, Z. C., Riedl, M. J., & Woolley, S. C. (2023). How pro- and anti-abortion activists use encrypted messaging apps in post-Roe America. Big Data & Society, 10(2).

How pro- and anti-abortion activists use encrypted messaging apps in post-Roe America

On June 24th, 2022, the United States Supreme Court ended nearly 50 years of federal protection of abortion. Immediately, we noticed that experts were recommending encrypted messaging apps as the solution to abortion-related data leakage for abortion-seekers, activists, and healthcare providers. Not two months later, a teenager and her mother in Nebraska were arrested for the teenager's abortion on the basis of data obtained from their Facebook Messenger conversations. It seemed, then, that encrypted messaging apps might provide security that unencrypted spaces (as Facebook Messenger, at the time, was) could not. 

We thus set out to explore the utility of encrypted messaging apps as privacy-promoting spaces in a post-Roe America. We interviewed pro-abortion, anti-abortion, and encryption activists in U.S. states with varying levels of abortion restriction or protection. We found that while our pro-abortion interviewees often considered encryption as a powerful tool for security, our anti-abortion interviewees largely rejected it on principle alone, believing it to be characteristic of inauthenticity or criminality, or simply found it untrustworthy. Yet activists on both sides of the abortion issue used encrypted messaging apps for reasons other than security, including convenience and coordination.

Ultimately, we argue that although end-to-end encryption is a powerful security tool, it must be used in combination with other security practices to effectively resist patriarchal (and ubiquitous) surveillance by corporations and law enforcement in a post-Roe America.