Facebook’s handover of data in teen abortion case raises privacy questions

The prosecution of a mother and her daughter for allegedly violating Nebraska’s abortion restrictions is renewing scrutiny of how Facebook and other social media companies store user data.

Jessica Burgess and her daughter, Celeste Burgess, are facing charges after a Norfolk detective subpoenaed Facebook to get messages between the two, according to the lincoln diary star. The detective found Facebook messages suggesting that Jessica Burgess had obtained abortion pills for her 17-year-old daughter and told her how to take them. Both have pleaded not guilty, the newspaper reports. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said it didn’t realize she was helping enforce Nebraska’s abortion law.

The unfolding legal drama raises new concerns about how data collection by tech companies could help prosecutors seeking to enforce new restrictions on abortion after the Supreme Court struck down national protections for the procedure.

The prosecution of a Nebraska mother and daughter has raised new concerns about how companies like Facebook store user data. Above, a smartphone with social media apps visible on the screen is shown in this undated file photo.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Shane Ferroa defense attorney and writer, reacted to the news in a tweet by saying that while Facebook will comply with search warrants, people can demand stronger privacy laws from their government.

“There are two ways out of the situation: the government can legalize abortion, or it can pass privacy laws to prevent Facebook from saving and maintaining private message data,” he said.

“Yes, you should get off Facebook, stop using Instagram, use Signal or the real phone to talk about sensitive issues, but you should also demand that the government that represents you take steps to protect your privacy, physical, digital and otherwise” . added in another cheep.

After the Supreme Court struck down national abortion protections in June, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based digital rights advocacy group, issued a statement advising those involved in abortions that they “assume that any information they provide online or offline could be searched by the police”.

“People should carefully review the privacy settings of the services they use, turn off location services in apps that don’t need them, and use encrypted messaging services,” the EFF said.

In addition, the EFF asked companies to better enable anonymous access to their products and stop behavioral tracking, while also making it easier to delete and encrypt data.

Facebook Messenger users have the option to encrypt their messages. But the mother-daughter couple in Nebraska don’t appear to have used that option.

The couple’s legal status began in April when a Norfolk police detective received a tip that Celeste Burgess had miscarried and that she and her mother had buried the baby’s body without reporting it, reports the star diary, citing a search warrant affidavit.

Court records show the detective was told that Celeste Burgess had unexpectedly delivered her stillborn baby in the shower, the newspaper reports.

The two put the baby’s body in a bag and buried it north of the city with the help of a 22-year-old man, according to the newspaper. The man later told police that the mother and daughter tried to burn the body before burying it, and the exhumed corpse showed signs of thermal injuries, according to the newspaper.

The two women were charged in June with removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body, a felony, and a pair of misdemeanors, including concealing the death of another person and false reporting, the newspaper reports.

After the two were charged, the detective served the search warrant on Facebook and found messages that Jessica Burgess obtained Pregnot, a mifepristone and misoprostol kit, to terminate the pregnancy, according to court records obtained by Vice. But Burgess was 28 weeks pregnant, putting her in violation of Nebraska’s 20-week abortion ban.

“So prosecutors are using FB data to hold MINORS criminally liable for having an abortion.” Lisa Larson-Bunnell, a Kansas health care attorney, said in a tweet. “Minors who cannot be held accountable under Facebook’s privacy terms. This is the data that Facebook provided to the police to prosecute a teenage girl for abortion.

Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, referred news week a a tweet responding to the controversy.

“Nothing in the valid orders we received from local authorities in early June, before the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion,” he said.

lawyer Alexandra Caraballo He said in a tweet that while the story is surprising, people shouldn’t trust tech companies to protect their data.

Update 9/8/22, 11:30pm ET: This story has been updated with additional comments from Meta.

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