Where Things Stand: Anti-Abortion Activists Have Been Collecting Data That Could Be Used To Target Abortion Seekers

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WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: Protesters with the anti-abortion group "Bound4Life" pray as they await decision announcements in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on May 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Court issued ... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 16: Protesters with the anti-abortion group "Bound4Life" pray as they await decision announcements in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on May 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Court issued decisions for two cases, Patel v. Garland and Federal Election Commission v. Ted Cruz for Senate. Anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups continue to wait for a decision on cases that could overturn Roe v. Wade. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images) MORE LESS

A recent report from MIT Technology Review sheds light on the ways in which anti-abortion activists have collected data on-site at abortion clinics over the past several decades to go after doctors and others carrying out the procedure.

While this has been a years-long practice, the fact that surveillance tactics are still being deployed at some clinics adds another layer of concern for abortion supporters as the nation heads into what will likely be a post-Roe America in coming weeks or months. As we well know, the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe sometime this summer — the certainty with which that is happening was made pretty clear after the draft majority opinion confirming the high court has the votes to overturn Roe was leaked several weeks ago.

States across the union are continuing the work — that’s been ongoing since SCOTUS oral arguments last year signaled this was the direction the court was headed — to prep for a post-Roe America. Red states are passing increasingly extreme abortion laws and outright bans to get ready for this eventuality. Blue states are passing legislation to help better serve patients who may have to travel across state lines for reproductive services once Roe is overturned. There are also several states with old school “trigger laws” on the books that will immediately make abortion illegal in many cases once Roe is dismantled.

This new MIT report is a helpful reminder: anti-abortion activists have been using surveillance and other data collection tactics, like recording license plate numbers at abortion clinics, for some time to gather personal information about those seeking abortions. While anti-abortion activists maintained in this new report that the data collection is only used to track the activities of doctors and clinics carrying out abortions, there are some trends in Republican state legislatures’ bill writings that make this practice even more concerning — in that it could help private citizens go after people getting the procedure in the first place.

In states like Texas and Oklahoma, the onus for enforcing new abortion ban laws lies on private citizens. In Texas, for example, private citizens, like Uber drivers, could be targeted with citizen lawsuits for engaging in any act that could be construed as “aiding or abetting” the process for seeking an abortion post-six weeks. We’ve seen similar laws considered and passed in red states like Oklahoma in recent weeks.

And the data-tracking practices used by anti-abortion activists for decades has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Per the MIT report:

Anti-abortion activists have long denied that this data is being used to harass or contact people seeking abortions; they say it is used to track doctors and assess whether the activism is stopping people from returning to the clinic to have an abortion. …

But it certainly could be used that way, and Wessler, from the ACLU, says the potential for this footage to target and harm people who have abortions is exacerbated by the use of facial recognition technology. There are two possible scenarios on that front, he says: law enforcement agencies in abortion-banning states could use facial recognition databases to scan clinic footage for residents, or private groups and organizations could use the technology themselves. 

Texas and Oklahoma now have laws that allow private citizens to sue anyone who performs or helps with an abortion. [Deputy project director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the ACLU Nathan] Wessler says that in a world where federal statutes offer no protection from such lawsuits, it’s easy to see how, with a post-Roe tweak to the laws, people seeking abortions could be sued as well. That possibility, paired with clinic surveillance, could produce an enormous chilling effect “where you have this nightmare of huge damages lawsuits being filed against people who are barely able to afford the gas to travel to a state where they can legally get an abortion,” he says. 

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