Pluralistic: 29 Jun 2022

Today's links

A Planned Parenthood clinic; over the roofline, we see a giant glaring red eye of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey; it has lines radiating from it that wash out the sky.

Abortion surveillance only incidentally involves period-trackers (permalink)

I get it. The deeper we get into this GOP christofascist Handmaid's Tale LARP, the more it feels like we are living in a dystopian novel and the more draw on stories to understand our experience. The idea that a cyberpunk Red State sheriff – Boss Hogg meets Robocop – would use period-tracking apps for dragnet abortion surveillance is a great setup for a novel, but it's not very reflective of reality.

I'm a novelist and I work on public policy, and the difference is that novels are very, very simplified. They tend to work in linear, verse-verse-chorus fashion, where causes beget effects in a way that is easy to understand; if a cause-effect relationship is complexified, it in service to a surprise ending or plot-twist – it's not just par for the course.

In actual public policy fights, things are really messy. I'm not saying that we don't live in a causal universe, but I am saying that figuring out which intervention will produce what outcome is a matter of informed guesswork and requires constant iteration and revision.

That's not just because of the complexity of the real world, either – it's also because real world policy fights are adversarial. Every move you make begets a countermove from your adversary. If your adversary is attacking you on one front, moving defenses there may not do you any good – not if you have another flank the attacker can costlessly shift to.

Which brings me to period-tracking apps and abortion surveillance. It's 100% true that many period tracking apps are privacy dumpster-fires. Over and over again, investigations of period-tracking apps have found an indefensible mix of poor security practices and indiscriminate data collection, usage, sale and sharing, compounded by outright lies from the vendors:

But just because period-tracking apps could be a way to trawl for people who might have had abortions, it doesn't follow that getting rid of your period-tracking app will make you safe. Giving up automated period-tracking imposes a high cost – and it's a cost with very few benefits in terms of security from forced-birth law-enforcement attacks.

Why? Well, the data-leakage from some period apps might be ghastly, but it isn't exceptional. Apps – sold as a tool for improving software quality and security by subjecting it to oversight from Google and Apple – are privacy nightmares. The same high-stakes data-mishandling that plagues period-trackers also plagues childcare apps, Muslim call-to-prayer apps, distance-ed evaluation apps, and more:

Indeed, the whole tech sector, from bottom-feeding ad-tech also-rans to multi-trillion-dollar global giants, spies on you all the time, in every way, and both their security policies and their law-enforcement cooperation policies are both exceptionally weak.

Take location data; this is harvested by many of the apps you routinely use, sometimes without the app-maker's explicit knowledge – widely used, free app development kits are notorious for gathering and selling location data from their customers' users. This data is then passed on to location brokers, who make it incredibly easy to discover who visited an abortion clinic, and who sell this data cheap to cops and anyone else who wants to snoop on you:

The Dobbs decision brings all this into focus, but for millions of people, primarily people of color and poor and/or indigenous people, fertility has long been a criminal justice issue. This is the Shitty Technology Adoption Curve in action – when you want to inflict technological harms with a new product, you try it out on the people with the least social capital and privilege, which lets you sand down the rough edges and normalize the technology as you move it up the privilege gradient:

Longstanding government intrusion into marginalized people's fertility has produced a rich evidentiary record. By looking at how cops inflicted themselves on the uteruses of excluded and marginalized people, we can gain insight into how they will impact a widening sphere of targets. Take "Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary," Cynthia Conti-Cook's open-access article for The University of Baltimore Law Review:

Conti-Cook trawls through the record to examine the role of technological surveillance and forensics in abortion prosecutions. She finds that cops and prosecutors use things like text-messages and search history to produce evidence that a miscarriage was the result of a medication abortion rather than spontaneous abortion.

I found Conti-Cook's article through "Fear, Uncertainty, and Period Trackers," a must-read Medium article from Kendra Albert, Maggie Delano and Emma Weil, which sharply critiques the focus on period-tracking apps for a lack of factual grounding in the history of abortion criminalization:

The authors stress that criminal prosecutions of abortions turn on the question of distinguishing medication abortions from spontaneous miscarriages, and for that, they need to establish intent – to produce evidence of the thoughts that preceded the miscarriage.

As Melissa Gira writes in the New Republic in "The Growing Criminalization of Pregnancy," abortion cops are dependent on tips from people in your life: partners and ex-partners, relatives, health-care professionals, con-artists working for "crisis pregnancy centers" and snoopy neighbors who rat you out to the cops as a suspected abortion-criminal.

Once the cops suspect you of procuring an abortion, data from your period app is of limited value to building the case against you. But your search history ("buy abortion pills, mifepristone online, misoprostol online") and messages with friends or out-of-state helpers are devastatingly effective in building that case.

This factual analysis of the recent history of criminalized abortion allows us to construct a framework for minimizing criminal prosecution risks when seeking a self-managed abortion. EFF's "Security and Privacy Tips for People Seeking An Abortion" is a good starting point:

Tambien en Español:

Of course, privacy is a team sport, so abortion providers should familiarize themselves with "Digital Security and Privacy Tips for Those Involved in Abortion Access":

Tambien en Español:

This short video, starring EFF's Eva Galperin and Daly Barnett, is a great and accessible entrée to the subject:

Note that none of these guides advise deleting your period app. Here's Consumer Reports' guide to privacy-preserving period apps, which gives high marks to Euki, Drip and the Apple Health app:

I started off by noting that the privacy problems of period apps are not unique; the entire mobile world is a horror of bad data-handling. Albert et al stress the importance of never consenting to a law-enforcement search of your mobile device. Make them get a warrant ("Consent searches are inherently coercive and should be banned").

US law enforcement agencies have gone on a spending spree, buying up sketchy mobile device search tools. Thousands of agencies have these tools, produced by Vichy nerds who use their technological freedoms to take away other people's:

One final note on the fight for abortion rights: despite the revisionist history emanating from the illegitimate SCOTUS justices as they perch on their stolen seats, abortion is indeed "deeply rooted." If you don't believe it, check out Dr Eleanor Janega's "medieval abortion reading list":

(Image: Paul Sableman, CC BY 2.0; Cryteria, CC BY 3.0; modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Profile of steampunk maker Jake von Slatt

#15yrsago Every known blog by an sf writer

#15yrsago Wikipedia vandal accidentally predicted Chris Benoit murders

#15yrsago GPL 3.0 ships

#10yrsago The WELL is for sale

#10yrsago Notes from the bankruptcy of Stockton, CA*/

#5yrsago Fresno cops find $1m worth of stolen bees in “beehive chop shop”

#5yrsago Office of the Director of National Intelligence admits its employee held down 15 other jobs and played games all day

#5yrsago Leaked Facebook docs: weird censorship standards that protect “white men but not black children”

#5yrsago What’s wrong with the Copyright Office’s DRM study?

#5yrsago That “ransomware” attack was really a cyberattack on Ukraine

#5yrsago After Trumpcare kills you, this service will send your cremains to the GOP lawmaker of your choosing

#5yrsago EFF trounces Zillow, McMansion Hell will return from copyfraud purgatory

#1yrago SCOTUS to wrongfully accused terrorists: "drop dead"

#1yrago Intuit sabotages the Child Tax Credit

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Cooper Quintin (

Currently writing:

  • Some Men Rob You With a Fountain Pen, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 522 words (20702 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 505 words (17172 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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