Cecile Richards, Alexandra Reeve Givens, Nabiha Syed discuss data privacy, reproductive care in SXSW featured session

Angela Lim, Life&Arts Editor

In August 2022, a mother in Nebraska faced charges for giving her 17-year-old daughter — who was pregnant at the time — access to abortion medication. The prosecution used the pair’s Facebook messages as proof.

“A mom (was) helping a daughter in one of the hardest moments of her life, and that was used as evidence in a crime,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology. “It’s a new landscape, and we need to think about new interventions to address it.”

The South by Southwest session “Data Privacy After Roe v. Wade” on Friday discussed the actions companies and consumers should take in protecting their personal information following restrictions on reproductive care in Texas and states across the country. The panel featured Givens, former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and Nabiha Syed, CEO of The Markup, who moderated the event.

“We’re moving into a universe where data is not the new oil — it’s uranium,” Syed said. “It’s dangerous if it’s mishandled, if it’s not stored correctly.”

A couple hours before the panel started, news broke of a Texas man suing three women for helping his ex-wife end her pregnancy — using text messages as evidence. Richards said these lawsuits create a chilling effect that makes people fearful of searching information about abortion online and seeking help from others.

“(This lawsuit) is an illustration of how terrifying it is to live in a state where anyone can be accused of aiding and abetting a person who is trying to access healthcare that frankly should be their legal right,” Richards said.

Calling for data reduction, Givens said companies and healthcare providers keep an unnecessary amount of information on individuals that can endanger them, such as one’s location services and browsing history. Companies should be wary of the type of data they collect, as well as who they share it with, Givens said.

“When (companies) get a lawful process from a prosecutor, it can be very hard for them to ignore those requests. The legal compliance department gets involved,” Givens said. “We need to make sure that they handle those law enforcement requests responsibly, that they’re pushing back on fishing expeditions.”

While Givens advised the audience to think expansively about the risks that come with revealing sensitive information, she said education on one’s Fourth Amendment and reproductive rights also needs to be more accessible. A Texas bill filed last month would ban websites that published resources about reproductive care on an internet service provider level if passed in this year’s legislative session, Givens said.

“The idea that somebody needs to download a VPN, pretend they’re in a different state, see if they can access that information and then maybe they will act on it — but who would they text for advice? It’s a nightmare,” Givens said. “I don’t think there is a technical solution that helps with that, even if the technology is there.”

In spite of the tension surrounding current legislation, Richards said she feels inspired by the younger generation’s growing mobilization — especially since the November 2022 elections — which fills her with the hope to see and create concrete change.

“For those of us who are past our childbearing years, we cannot leave young people alone to fight this battle,” Richards said. “We also have to support them and their creativity, ingenuity and leadership to restore the right of every person to make their own decisions about their bodies.”