On Feb. 14, California Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced Assembly Bill 793 to protect people from unconstitutional searches of their data. The law would block police and prosecutors in anti-abortion states from using “reverse warrants” to require technology companies to reveal the names of people who have searched online for abortion or traveled to a location offering abortion services.
The law’s introduction comes at a critical time: As states ban doctors from performing abortions and offering gender-affirming care, more people are traveling across state lines to obtain these services. Meanwhile, Republicans in multiple states have introduced bills that would allow authorities to criminally prosecute women and pregnant people who have abortions and prosecute parents for obtaining gender-affirming care for their children. Reproductive justice advocates are now taking action to address concerns that police and prosecutors in these states will attempt to find these people using digital dragnet surveillance of their search histories and location data.
Normal warrants seek information about a particular person, such as places they’ve been or the keywords they searched for online. A reverse warrant seeks the identities of all the people who present at a particular location or who searched for a particular keyword. These warrants can be used to conduct broad phishing expeditions for those who are seeking abortion or gender-affirming healthcare.
“With states across the country passing anti-abortion and anti-trans legislation, it’s vital that California shore up our protections against digital tracking of vulnerable people seeking healthcare,” said Bonta. “This legislation will put a stop to unconstitutional ‘reverse warrants’—preserving our digital privacy and protecting Californians’ right to live life on our own terms.”
Reverse warrants, geofence warrants or keyword warrants—known as “dragnet surveillance demands”—enable local law enforcement in states across the country to compel tech companies to search their records and reveal the names and identities of all people whose digital data shows they’ve spent time at or near an abortion clinic or searched for abortion information online.
With states across the country passing anti-abortion and anti-trans legislation, it’s vital that California shore up our protections against digital tracking of vulnerable people seeking healthcare.California Assemblymember Mia Bonta
“Carrying a smartphone, using social media and allowing apps to know our location has become a part of our daily routines,” said Becca Cramer-Mowder, legislative advocate at ACLU California Action, which is backing the bill. “But it means that each of us has a vast data trail that is vulnerable to government abuse. Anti-abortion police and prosecutors have used digital data to criminalize people for their abortion long before Roe v. Wade was overturned, and law enforcement in other states have already abused reverse warrants to identify people protesting police violence. We need to put a stop to this type of dragnet surveillance.”
Current California law prohibits companies from sharing sensitive reproductive data. Last year, the California legislature passed a law providing groundbreaking digital privacy protections for abortion-related communications sent through California tech companies. Assembly Bill 1242 bars telecommunications companies incorporated or headquartered in California from providing records of digital communications related to abortion to law enforcement officials seeking to use them in an investigation or prosecution for abortion that is legal under California law. But this law does not address reverse warrants.
“Between 2018 and 2020, Google alone received more than 5,700 reverse warrant demands from states that now have anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ legislation on the books,” said Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital privacy. “As a worldwide leader in technology and innovation, California is uniquely positioned to divest from digital surveillance that would target people for having an abortion or seeking reproductive and gender-affirming care.”
The bill is backed by a coalition of more than 25 reproductive justice, civil liberties and privacy groups.
“As states across the country pass anti-abortion legislation, it’s vital that states like California do everything in their power to create protections against digital tracking,” said Myra Durán, senior policy advocate at the reproductive justice legal organization If/When/How. “No one should face or fear criminalization for their abortion or gender-affirming care. When we decide to end our pregnancies, we should be able to do so with dignity, and without fear of being arrested, investigated or jailed.”
Californians can urge lawmakers to support AB 793 here.
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