April 23, 2020 / 2:03 PM / a month ago

EXPLAINER-How to control women's sexual health with tech

LONDON, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From fake websites to location tracking, anti-abortion groups are using data and technology to curtail women’s access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, privacy activists say.

As coronavirus lockdowns close family planning clinics and threaten abortion rights worldwide, a report by charity Privacy International calls for safeguards against data exploitation that interferes with a woman’s body and reproductive choices.

Anti-abortion groups named in the report could not be reached for comment by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Here are some highlights from this week’s report.

WHO IS USING WHAT TECHNOLOGY?

Anti-abortion groups target women to mine and exploit their data, the report says, sharing information with like-minded organisations and spreading misleading information online.

Through chat boxes - embedded in clinic websites and fake websites - the groups gather personal data, including opinions on abortion, from users seeking pregnancy advice online.

They access location data through geo-fencing, a widely available tracking technology, and sex or menstruation data by funding contraception apps, according to the report.

This information is then shared with a network of family planning clinics that discourage abortion, including in some countries where abortion is banned.

WHAT IS THE IMPACT ON WOMEN’S HEALTH?

Anti-abortion groups find women who are already inside clinics using location tracking technology then send messages designed to sow doubts about their decision, the report says.

They also target young women on social media with anti-abortion adverts, including ones for medically dubious “abortion reversal” pills that flood a woman’s body with hormones aimed at countering the effects of an abortion pill.

In the report, Monica McLemore, an associate professor at the University of California, calls the product “scientifically inaccurate” and “not known to be safe or efficacious”.

The groups spread misinformation, hoping to delay a woman considering abortion until it is too late to act, often under the guise of offering objective or official government advice.

“The level of organisation and determination of these anti-abortion groups is terrifying,” said a spokesperson for Abortion Support Network, a charity that supports access to abortion.

“The way they are able to replicate their websites, processes, language and imagery, seeking to intimidate, scare and delay abortion-seekers, is worrying.”

HAS THE CORONAVIRUS CHANGED THE SITUATION?

Increased reliance on online tools in the global lockdown expands the opportunity for exploitation, experts say.

“We know that more women will be seeking information and support online because of the closure of GP surgeries and clinics,” said the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

“This gives anti-choice organisations more opportunities to intercept and redirect women seeking abortion care.”

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Health experts say the onus should not fall on women to police their own privacy. Instead, organisations should be held accountable when they breach rules.

“Those seeking reproductive health information, services, and care ... should not have to become technical experts in order to protect themselves from data exploitative technologies being developed to delay or curtail their access,” Privacy International’s head of reproductive rights and privacy project, Sara Nelson, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for Facebook said they were investigating the social media adverts flagged in the report but “don’t allow advertisers to make misleading or deceptive claims about services they provide, including in relation to abortions”. (Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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