High-Tech Surveillance Could Track Abortion-Seekers in U.S.

lejandra Pablos leans in front of the camera. Her curly, black hair frame her face. “We are going to hear about abortions,” she says to viewers watching via Instagram Live. Pablos hosts virtual Abortion Talk Outs every Tuesday. In a warm gray shirt, Pablos reminds viewers that anyone can participate via video and share their experiences. “I’m going to be the first person to share,” says Pablos in a soothing tone as she frames her hands around her face, revealing delicate tattoos. Her nails are deep maroon and have perfectly shaped tips.

Pablos is an organizer for the Reproductive Justice Coalition of Phoenix. She is a prolific Instagram user, sharing memes and videos as well as TikToks that affirm the need for legal and safe abortions. Born in Mexico, she moved to America with her family when she was a child. She’s currently undocumented.

“Many of us don’t have choices,” says Pablos matter-of-factly, sharing that the last time she was pregnant, she actually wanted to have the child, “but I also knew that I was facing deportation, and literally a year after having that abortion, I was arrested by ICE.”

Pablos was taken into custody by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, and kept for 43 days at Eloy Detention Center. This facility is similar to a prison.

Pablos’s situation is, in some ways, unique. Her story is told through social media as she’s both an illegal immigrant and pro-choice advocate living in an area that will soon implement a stringent ban on abortion. These aspects of her story highlight some of the more serious risks women living in America face. Roe V. WadeThis is a mistake.

When abortion was previously criminalized within the United States prior to 1973, law enforcement didn’t have the technology and surveillance data that police departments and other authorities can now access. Pro-choice activists and academics can point out the current surveillance methods that many immigrant, Black, and BIPOC community members use to monitor them using social media data such as Instagram, Facebook and surveillance on roads and other sources.

This issue is particularly urgent for Black, Latinx, and low-income females. They are much more likely to have an abortion than other women according to Guttmacher Institute.

However, in light of the May 2nd leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that suggested overturning it RoeThese issues suddenly became much more complex and urgent. According to academics and advocates who are experts on the topic, if abortion were made a criminal offense, existing tactics and tools used by immigration authorities and law enforcement could be modified to allow anyone to seek or consider an abortion. Senators have also requested stronger privacy regulations to help protect those seeking abortion.

Pablos is aware of all these intertwined surveillance networks and claims that they form a complicated web. “The same state that is trying to deport me,” she says, “would also force me to be pregnant even if I didn’t decide to create a family.”

Collecting and sharing data

Pablos’s personal life has been deeply affected by two areas of governmental policy: immigration and reproductive rights. Arizona is known for its harsh anti-immigration laws.

Arizona’s abortion laws are also very strict. The state adopted a ban on abortion for 15 weeks earlier this year, with no exemptions for incest or rape. Abortion applicants are required to get an ultrasound. An ultrasound can be ordered for any reason. RoeIf it is overturned the abortion will be automatically made illegal by the state.

Both of these aspects fuel her work as an organizer, and they’ve painted a picture of how data can be collected and shared by authorities.

Pablos’s decade-long struggle with ICE originally began when she was stopped by local police in 2011 and then arrested and convicted for driving under the influence and possessing drug paraphernalia. It’s an example of how local and federal authorities collaborate to share data, which may offer a glimpse of what is to come if RoeThis is a mistake.

Pablos, for example, acts as an abortion doula and supports women who are pregnant financially and emotionally. It also includes transporting people to the clinics for an abortion. Undocumented people could face deportation in Arizona for seemingly minor activities, such as driving. Human rights activists claim that despite local laws prohibiting police from profiling drivers or calling immigration officials during routine traffic stops, these police practices are continuing.

“I give rides to people daily; what are those rides going to look like now?” says Pablos. “As an undocumented person taking people through [police] checkpoints even though I know that I’m legally allowed to be here right now, that is really scary.”

Advocates say that agencies share a lot of data. “The systems that didn’t talk to each other are talking to each other a lot more,” says Patrice Lawrence, executive director of the UndocuBlack Network. Federal agencies like ICE can access a complicated web of databases, which includes fingerprint information collected during an arrest.

According to ICE‘s website, these data sharing programs enable the agency to work with “law enforcement partners in the shared responsibility for ensuring the safety of our communities” by “using biometrics to identify foreign-born individuals arrested for criminal offenses.”

Representatives from ICE declined to comment on requests.

Continue reading: Within the Campaign to Promote Abortion Pills in a Post Roe America

“We now have evidence of a massive militarized and profitable technological surveillance machine that is being relayed against Black and brown communities,” says Paromita Shah, executive director of Just Futures Law, “it’s a threat to migrants, and it’s also a threat to all of our well-being.”

This data collection could affect citizens and non-citizens, alike, organizers say—whether or not people have interacted with police. In May, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, a Washington, D.C. think-tank, published a significant report on ICE. It claims that ICE can access the driver’s license data of 74% of adults. The agency has already used facial recognition technology to search the driver’s license photographs of 32% of adults in the US, according to the report.

These activities are well-funded—immigration agencies earmark millions of dollars to collect data. Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group, discovered that ICE had contracted with a broker to gain access to license plates databases to allow them to track car movements. This contract has a value of $22.8million. According to the Center on Privacy and Technology, these lucrative contracts allow ICE to monitor the movements of cars within cities that have nearly 70% adult population.

Advocates claim that ICE will take extreme measures to locate undocumented immigrants. According to Just Futures Law reports, the agency identified and held immigrants who paid their electricity, gas or internet bills. According to Center on Privacy and Technology (CPT), ICE has access to this data via contracts with private brokers that allow it to gain access to information about over 218 million customers of utilities across the nation. Just Futures Law believes these contracts have a value of over $43 Million.

Organized criminal justice organizations warn that surveillance data can also flow in the opposite direction from federal authorities to local or state law enforcement. “The broader information-sharing environment is vast,” says Hamid Khan, an organizer with STOP LAPD Spying Coalition, who describes this phenomenon as the “datafication of our bodies.” Khan also points to fusion centers as important elements of how data-sharing happens. After 9/11, fusion centers were established to allow information sharing among federal, state, and local agencies. They have been quietly in operation ever since.

Local surveillance

Some fear being deported. Roe V. WadeThe fate of the country hangs in balance. Others worry about being caught up by the local authorities.

On a local level, some police departments rely on technology that analyzes individuals’ social media accounts to allegedly prevent crime. In the past this technology has flagged individuals as gang members based on their Facebook friends list or who’s next to them in a photo. These databases have been criticized by civil rights organizations in Chicago, New York, and Minnesota as examples of racial profiling.

Advocates are concerned that other databases could be built in places where it is possible for abortion to be illegalized. Roe v. Wade was overturned. “As long as there’s a police department somewhere who wants to have a registry of pregnant people and abortions, there’s probably going to be an industry willing to do it or get paid to do it,” says Cynthia Conti-Cook, a Ford Foundation tech fellow and civil rights lawyer.

Just Futures Law documented the fact that ICE also monitors social media accounts of immigrants like Pablos. This concerns Shah. She says, “People are posting images on social media about being at an abortion protest; maybe being shown at a clinic. All that social media scraping is low-hanging fruit for law enforcement and ICE.”

Advocates suggest that ongoing surveillance could target abortion providers and seekers in states that ban or penalize abortion. In a new report, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project predicts that state officials will “turn to the surveillance tools that have become so central to American policing, using technology to peer into the most intimate aspects of our lives.”

Digital evidence history and pregnancy

The police have gone to extraordinary lengths to find pregnant women through digital fingerprints.

The Supreme Court memo leaked to the media indicates that the Supreme Court could overturn the Constitution. Roe V. WadeAdvocates for BIPOC in countries that restrict abortion access argue they live in a post-abortion world.RoeReality, in which technological devices and internet activities are used to support evidence in court.

Purvi Ptel, for instance, was convicted in 2015 of neglecting a dependent and feticide for using abortion drugs in Granger in Indiana. Her cell phone data and iPad were used by the prosecution to create a case against Patel. The evidence presented consisted of text messages from a friend regarding becoming pregnant and buying pills. She also provided proof via her email that she bought the pills online, as well as other research she did online. The case could not have been made without the assistance of experts and medical professionals. Patel was initially issued a 20-year sentence but after significant public outcry and a long legal battle, an appeal’s court ultimately threw out her feticide conviction and she was released from prison.

“They’re using this evidence to imbue intent about a pregnant person’s state of mind,” said Conti-Cook, “because if you ever once consider your pregnancy a crisis they’re going to not just take that at face value, but start reading into that.”

Conti-Cook also examined the case Latice Fischer, who was charged with second-degree murder in Mississippi in 2018 after she gave birth to a stillborn child at her home. Black Fisher was subject to law enforcement searching her mobile phone. They used her searches on the internet for abortion pills as evidence during her trial. Fisher was freed from prison after significant public pressure.

Upturn, an advocacy group focused on technology, has found that police increasingly search mobile phones in arrests of people for minor offences like graffiti and shoplifting. The report shows how the technology law enforcement uses to search an individual’s phone during an arrest is so advanced it can map all of the cell phone activity that took place at a specific location ranging from phone calls to app usage to photos.

When investigating serious crimes, such as child sexual abuse and homicide, police emphasize how important this technology is. There have been many instances where the technology provided new insights in investigating serial killers. Upturn discovered that the technology could also be used to solve minor crimes like marijuana possession and vandalism.

An uneven toll

The widespread use of technology in this area is astounding. According to Upturn, more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States have bought this type of technology. This includes all 50 states. Conti Cook says the technology’s impact is not evenly distributed, noting Fisher and Patel are both female of color. “It’s also very fair to assume that the people who are going to be the most criminalized by this evidence or see this evidence come up are going to be people of color,” Conti-Cook says.

Lawrence warns that Black immigrants might be more at risk than whites if they are made criminally responsible for abortion. It is a fact that Black immigrants are more at risk than White ones. According to the Stanford Open Policing Project, Black motorists in America are 20% less likely to be stopped than those of white.

Pablos will continue to work, despite the dangers. Her experience includes navigating through criminal charges and seeking an abortion in a conservative country while fighting for her deportation case. This experience has taught her the importance of self-determination and immigration issues. “If our autonomy is already taken away from us, then we have nothing left to lose,” Pablos told TIME. She believes that the only way to keep going is to ignore the danger.

Pablos says: “We’re going to keep doing this work no matter how bad it gets because it’s a matter of life and death.”

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