2023 will be the year the battle for data ownership hits the streets.
Overruled by the Supreme Court of the United States Roe v. Wade politicized women’s bodies—and not only in the United States. When the ruling was debated in Westminster, several British parliamentarians took the opportunity to question a woman’s bodily autonomy.
The reaction of every woman I know—and many men—was instinctive and intuitive. We are transported back to the 70s or earlier.
But there is a difference. In those days, we didn’t have artificial intelligence or big data. We didn’t have a number.
We are all digital beings now. More than ten years have passed since then history about how Target knew a teenager was pregnant before her parents did, based on what she was buying. Think of the huge “advances” in algorithms, data collection and advertising technology since then. Legislation has not kept up.
There are a lot of very smart people in tech, but their approach to trading data is driven by profit rather than principle. The Supreme Court decision politicized the data women create about our bodies, putting it at the heart of one of the most polarized and toxic political divisions. I predict that in 2023 the data rights debate will enter the real world.
The original Roe v. Wade the opinion was based on the idea of privacy. Its repeal will worsen the issue of privacy in the digital world.
Even earlier roe deer was shot down, many expressed concern about the apps people were using to track their periods. If not being pregnant can be a crime – if you have been pregnant in the recent past – information about your periods becomes evidence for the prosecution.
We have already seen women criminalized for having miscarriages. States will demand the data in court in the interest of prosecuting abortion providers and clients. Additionally, states like Texas and Oklahoma have “bounty hunter” laws that allow people to stalk women who have had abortions, which can encourage digital stalking.
Women are switching from period tracking apps with known data issues, like Flo, to apps that promise more privacy, like Stardust, though their privacy promises are still unproven.
But the problem isn’t limited to menstrual apps: any app that tracks your temperature, for example, could have data that identifies your reproductive state. What about conclusions based on what you buy (Target’s example looked at whether or not women buy scented moisturizer) or what you care about? (Google has announced that it will remove visits to abortion clinics, but what about finding abortion clinic locations?)
In practice, technology companies will almost certainly follow state laws unless federal regulations supersede them. This means the transfer of information as required by the court. Because of the toxicity of the abortion debate, we may be witnessing an arms race in terms of law enforcement in the American states.
Removing recurring programs is not enough. Your phone, the sites you visit, the other apps you run, all of it is tracking you. Even in the UK it is perfectly legal to sell this data if it has been aggregated and supposedly anonymised. As a computer scientist Latania Sweeney As you know, the term “anonymized datasets” should have “pseudo” before it. Even most deleted data can be recovered.
Essentially, the business model of the entire “legitimate” network is set up to understand you well enough to sell you something you might want to buy. And pregnancy affects your future purchases.
As an engineer and techie at heart, I’ve long been troubled by the lack of individual autonomy over the digital footprints we all leave behind. I predict that in 2023 we will see women and their allies in the streets demanding control of our data as a means of controlling our bodies.