Digital technologies are central to many social movements’ goals in raising awareness, mobilising support and coordinating protests around the world. But as these technologies adapt and evolve alongside our global communications system, so do the threats posed by increased surveillance to press freedom, data and privacy. This is having a profound impact on our collective health and human rights, an issue that is particularly apparent when looking at the recent advances and setbacks of the abortion rights movement.
For example, when Colombia became the third nation in Latin America to legalise abortion in February of this year, it was symbolic of the power of the “Green Wave” women’s movement that has spread around the world to deliver vital legislative reform and progress on reproductive health and rights. The Colombian victory followed successive wins in Mexico in 2021, when the Supreme Court voted unanimously to decriminalise abortion, and in Argentina, which, legalised abortion in 2020 and sparked a catalyst for progressive change throughout the region.
But despite this important progress, the sustained success of the abortion rights movement cannot be taken for granted. For example, Nicaragua, Poland and the United States have all recently rolled back legislation that enables safe, legal abortion: a critical indicator for reproductive rights and justice. And in the UK, only after pushback from women’s rights groups did the government reverse its plan in March to scrap at home early medical abortions. The result of these setbacks is a ‘Poor’ grade for the world in the 2022 SDG Gender Index, which provides an overview of global gender equality and has seen little progress on legal grounds for abortion since 2015. Worryingly, the Index also found that the extent to which women can discuss political issues in private and public spaces has decreased or stagnated in every region around the world. Thus, in recognition of World Press Freedom Day and the digital era’s impact on access to information and privacy, governments should be held accountable in ensuring that feminist movements and organisations can operate safely by removing barriers to collective action and protecting the human rights and security of feminist activists and journalists, particularly those that face anti-abortion violence such as targeted harassment, assault and intimidation.
Data: A tool and a weapon
The weaponization of technology and data was laid bare in a 2020 report by Privacy International that documented 10 data exploitative technologies and tactics that are being used to obtain vast amounts of intimate information about people’s reproductive health. The tactics include: digital dossiers about those seeking pregnancy options; targeted anti-abortion ads to the phones of people inside reproductive health clinics; online chat services and smartphone apps that share personal health information with anti-abortion organisations; and websites that provide fake or misleading information about abortion and pregnancy. According to the report, “groups in opposition to reproductive rights, such as access to contraception, safe abortion care, medically accurate sexual health information, and more, are also exploiting people’s data to delay and curtail access to vital healthcare.”
Efforts to exploit reproductive health data and information are gaining traction. As reported in the Harvard International Review, the pro-life movement is leveraging social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok to build international connections, intercept women seeking abortions, and use data from various virtual anti-abortion platforms to create more targeted restrictions on abortion. Last year, an investigation by the Spanish-language newspaper El Pais found that across Latin America, centres affiliated with the U.S anti-abortion organization Heartbeat International pose as feminist support groups or ‘crisis centres’ online to mislead or manipulate women and prevent them from having an abortion. OpenDemocracy has further revealed a global campaign of misinformation that specifically targets women seeking abortion information and services online, with the most recent examples being identified in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo.
These findings are deeply disturbing. Not only do they threaten to unravel or impede important legislative progress on SDG 5: Gender Equality, they are also drawing new, virtual battle lines in what is increasingly becoming an ideological debate characterised by falsehoods and misinformation. Therefore, on World Press Freedom Day, it is crucial to recognise the importance of and the need for more free and independent reporting on the threats posed by increased surveillance and data exploitation.
Privacy and women’s rights: a fragile intersection
The relatively new issue of data exploitation in reproductive health services presents itself at the fragile intersection of privacy rights and women’s rights. Sustained efforts to reveal how anti-abortion organisations and their political allies are collecting and using this data will be crucial in ensuring people are able to exercise their reproductive rights. Privacy experts, journalists and women’s rights organisations must work together to demand accountability from powerful institutions including tech and social media platforms that collect and share this data with little to no transparency. And in countries where there is a strong anti-abortion movement and limited data privacy laws, they must also put pressure on governments to implement laws that prevent data exploitation of those seeking abortions.
There is no doubt that the recent progress made in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere in the world on access to safe abortion is cause for celebration. However, it is more important than ever that these ripple effects are not hijacked by ideologically-motivated groups that use technology to undermine women’s access to safe abortion in troubling new ways.
Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS alumna, having completed her MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in South East Asia and West Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.