The fall of Roe v. Wade is raising serious concerns about whether women’s’ online data could be used to prosecute them in states where abortions will soon be, or are now, illegal.
The thinking is that the digital footprints women leave behind while discussing or searching for information about abortions or clinics could be scooped up by law enforcement in anti-abortion states and used as evidence in cases against them.
It’s not unheard of for authorities to use women’s’ online data, including abortion-related search history, to prosecute cases. And with the possibility that anti-abortion states could attempt to prosecute women who have abortions, protecting your online data has taken on increased urgency.
While this list isn’t exhaustive in the ways it can help you protect your data, it’s a means to get started if you find yourself in need of doing so.
Getting rid of your data
Many women have been deleting period tracking apps for fear that the information they gather could be used against them in the future. But this is a dangerous move in two ways. The first is, deleting the app doesn’t get rid of the data a company already has on you, and it’s not just period tracking apps that collect tons of information.
Before deleting your account in any app, whether it’s a period tracking or even a social media app, you’ll first want to request that a company deletes your data on their end. This ensures that it doesn’t have any information about you to turn over to authorities.
You should only delete the app itself after you submit a request for the company to delete your data.
Use a privacy-focused web browser
Chrome is the world’s most popular web browser with a global market share of nearly 65%, according to Statcounter. But Chrome isn’t exactly the most private browser. After all, Google-parent Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) makes the vast majority of its revenue from ad sales, and the more data it can collect on its users, the better it can target them with ads.
To help sweep away the breadcrumbs left behind while you browse the web, you can download and use private browsers instead. Brave browser is a highly-rated web browser that eliminates user data like cookies and blocks third-party trackers. And because Brave is based on Google’s Chromium open-source software, but largely stripped of its tracking capabilities, you’ll still be able to access the vast majority of Chrome compatible websites.
Changing your browser alone, though, doesn’t matter if you’re also using a search engine that tracks your usage like Google. To better protect yourself and your anonymity, you can try DuckDuckGo, a privacy-centric search engine that promotes itself as a means to prevent third parties from collecting your user data.
Use VPNs to obscure your location
VPNs, or virtual private networks, essentially create a tunnel through the web that allow you to connect to the same websites you normally do, but without giving up your own internet protocol, or IP, address. Think of an IP address as your device’s mailing address. It tells websites where you’re physically located, which can be used to provide you with things like hyper local search results at the expense of also recognizing where you’re browsing from.
A VPN, however, spoofs your actual location data, meaning that if you’re, say, located in Texas or another anti-abortion state and want to look up information about getting an abortion in New Jersey where it’s legal, you could make it appear as though you’re actually browsing from Jersey rather than Texas.
This can also help obscure your identity online, especially when paired with a privacy-centric browser and privacy forward search engine.
Understand what information apps gather
The apps you use on a daily basis also collect massive amounts of data about you. It’s not only the data you dump into those apps, such as photos, status updates, or birth dates, either. Apps can also collect data about your browsing habits in other apps and websites.
That’s why it’s important to understand exactly what kind of data apps and websites gather about you. In a perfect world, you’d be able to do this quickly for every app and website you use. But that’s just not tenable given the numerous apps and sites most people use on a daily basis.
Instead, you can focus on the apps that you would use to discuss or look into abortions. Apple (AAPL) has a feature called App Transparency Tracking (ATT), which can provide you with a detailed look at the kind of information that apps collect about you. You can also select whether apps can access certain features on your smartphone including GPS data. Google is working on a similar tool.
It’s also important to read apps’ privacy policies to determine whether or not they share your data with third parties and find out their stances on working with governments. Some companies try to limit the amount of information they turn over to authorities when requested to do so via a subpoena, while others will not. Looking into their privacy policies will give you a better understanding of just how safe your data is while using certain apps.
Use encrypted communications tools
Online communications, whether that’s emails or text messages, could also be used against women in court cases related to abortion. To prevent that, it’s best to use services that offer end-to-end encryption.
End-to-end encryption scrambles your data using a special key from the moment it leaves your phone or device to the moment it gets to the person you’re messaging. Only the person you’ve sent it to can decrypt the message, so third parties can’t capture your data.
Apps like WhatsApp and Signal offer end-to-end encryption, meaning no one, not even their parent companies can gain access to your conversations. That means even if the government tried to subpoena your data, Meta, WhatsApps’ parent company, and Signal can’t turn anything over.
Email services like Proton Mail also provide also end-to-end encryption features. When emailing another Proton Mail user, messages are automatically end-to-end encrypted, and when emailing, say, a Gmail user, you can set up a password so the user can decrypt your messages.
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