First things first: abortion is basic healthcare. Abortion is not a simple matter nor is it without nuance and difficulty and moral complexity. And at the same time, safe and legal access to abortion is a fundamental right and to restrict it is a fundamental wrong. Restricting access to abortion leads to needless suffering and death, and disproportionately impacts those already most vulnerable.
Now, my work is with data. It is a lens through which I engage with the world around me.
And data is about to be weaponized against women and other marginalised people and communities in ways and on a scale that it hasn’t been before.
In response to this imminent weaponization, I see calls out there for people to delete their period tracking apps because that data can now be used to prosecute them. This seems on the face of it good advice, and in an immediate way it is (see, for example, this TechCrunch piece on past privacy issues with period tracking apps) but it’s also bad in two ways.
First, deleting those apps will likely in no meaningful way reduce one’s chances of being prosecuted for and convicted of abortion crimes. At worst it can even create a false sense of security. It’s not about avoiding certain apps, because just about any app we have on our phones collects data that, especially when combined with other data and analysed, can reveal that we likely will be, are, or were recently pregnant.
Even forgoing the use of a phone won’t protect us because of the ubiquity of surveillance technology in public and private spaces: cameras, sensors, satellites. Data captured from every device we interact with or even are observed by can now be used for the purpose of persecution–and that’s not a typo. Prosecution for abortion crimes is persecution.
Second, making people abstain from using services like health apps–apps that for some can be the only available form of contraception due to health or social reasons–to make people abstain from using these apps that make their lives easier, less painful, healthier, safer, or in any way better because now there is a chance the app data could be used for prosecuting them is part of an oppressive programme.
There’s a long history of women and other marginalised people and communities being told to abstain from something those more privileged continue to be able to enjoy, or telling us to moderate who we are and what we say or do because those more powerful would rather not be uncomfortable.
Women are told not to engage in activities that pose risk to us. “Don’t walk alone at night.” “Only meet your male dates in public.” “Don’t get drunk.” “Don’t provoke”, or: don’t wear certain clothing or reject or want sex or anger or flirt. Now we’re told we can’t use our phones because there’s a risk that data from those could be used against us, because it’s dangerous for us?
None of this is OK.
Feminists among others have long been pointing out that it should not be the vulnerable who bear the burden of minimising their own risk of being abused and assaulted. We should not be restricting our own options and lives, or else being forced to take risks for a lack of resources, like the money for a taxi or the time or energy to take the longer, better-lit route. It should be the more powerful who bear the burden of stopping the abuse and assault from being committed by their own.
So let’s not just tell people to stop using period tracking apps or exercise caution online. It’s not enough to protect us, and it’s yet another form of restricting and controlling us instead of doing that to the aggressors.
The systems of oppression that operate in the world are being reproduced, amplified, and new forms of them are introduced in and by the digital. Fighting for data justice is a key front in the fight against oppression.
We need a shift in the way data works altogether. Let’s make sure it works for individuals and communities instead of being used against us by authoritarian governments and exploitative companies, and those people and groups behind them who stand to gain from oppression.
So what should we do, individually and collectively? I don’t have the whole answer, but I have some suggestions for pieces of it. All the actions I recommend are not available for all people, but for those for whom they are, we need to act. Now. Wherever we are in the world.
- Data legislation that centres the agency and the self-defined benefit of people and communities. Codify the baseline of privacy into well-implemented and adequately enforced law. Look at and improve on the EU GDPR and subsequent legislative initiatives, and learn from indigenous data sovereignty movements.
- Technology that safeguards against illegal access to and use of data. Architect systems to prevent misuse and abuse. Adopt “privacy-by-design” as policy and look at things like privacy-enhancing technologies: distributed systems and cutting-edge encryption techniques.
- Civic demand for digital rights and more broadly data justice. Make parties and politicians declare their position on data issues, and force it onto the political agenda. And vote and volunteer and donate and run accordingly. Look at what people do and accept, not only what they say. And keep looking, asking, and holding them accountable.
- Transforming markets into ones that can flourish without exploiting people via personal data. Build and work for and collaborate with and support businesses that are compliant with privacy laws (if they exist) and that hold themselves to an ethical standard you can get behind. Whatever you may think of the motives behind the decision by IBM to stop selling racial profiling software given that they developed it in the first place, these kinds of business decisions can be and are being made.
I work towards making MyData happen because, for me, it is necessary (if not sufficient) to address what’s happening in the world right now. A basic insight of MyData is that the current systems of data are asymmetrical, imbalanced, and unfair. A basic motivation of MyData is to fix this by addressing business, legal, technical, and societal aspects of those systems.
For me, MyData is about data justice and so it is intractably about social justice, including reproductive justice.
For me, MyData is not just an intellectual exercise, it’s a viscerally felt need.
This is why I will fight even harder, work even smarter, and shout even louder for MyData in light of what is happening to all of us right now.
Consider joining me if you can.
- This is an issue that affects mainly, but crucially not only, women. Some trans men and non-binary people, for example, can get pregnant. It’s important to advocate for women and it’s important to talk about the issue of abortion inclusively.
- I am not from or based in the US and even I am affected. I will now likely not be able to spend time in large parts of it. What if I need a morning after pill while there? Discover an unwanted pregnancy while there? Have a miscarriage while there? Even my world here halfway across the globe has become smaller. I cannot imagine what it feels like for others much more directly impacted. Let’s amplify and centre the voices of those people. I’ve included some of them below, please share more.
- The oligarchs’ Supreme Court – Cory Doctorow
- Do You Really Need to Worry About Your Period Tracking App in a Post-Roe World?
- How Period-Tracker Apps Treat Your Data, and What That Means if Roe v. Wade Is Overturned – WSJ
- Opinion | We Need to Take Back Our Privacy – The New York Times
- Are You Ready to Be Surveilled Like a Sex Worker? | WIRED
- Women of color will be most impacted by the end of Roe, experts say – The Washington Post
- With Roe v. Wade overturned, disabled people reflect on how it will impact them – NPR
- Data justice | Internet Policy Review
MyData Global is a politically independent and non-committed organisation. This essay is the personal opinion of Viivi Lähteenoja, currently serving as the chair of the board but whose views above do not necessarily reflect those of all other elected officials or members of MyData Global.