Internet privacy, like abortion rights, under siege, by Clarence Page

7/21/2022, 6 p.m.
Having witnessed how much the world seemed to change after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, it has ...

Having witnessed how much the world seemed to change after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, it has been stunning—although not too surprising—to see how much the world has tried to change back.

Written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the conservative 6-3 majority opinion maintained that the right to an abortion was a part of the right to privacy—neither of which is explicitly included in the Constitution, although the right is inferred by the landmark 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut, on which Roe v. Wade was largely grounded.

You thought you had a right to privacy? Guess again.

Kicking the legs out from under the right to privacy has big and ominous implications, particularly at a time when police and other crime fighters turn increasingly to internet search engines like Google for help.

For example, in the new post-Roe world, privacy advocates reasonably ask, is Google doing enough to safeguard your data from falling into the wrong hands—or popping up on the wrong screens?

In response to complaints, Google announced on July 1 that it will delete abortion clinic visits, as well as trips to fertility clinics, domestic violence shelters and addiction treatment facilities among other sensitive locations.

Shades of Big Brother. I’m not talking about the network TV reality show. I’m talking about the ominous and omnipresent overlord in George Orwell’s 1949 novel “1984,” symbol of a totalitarian state in which every citizen is under constant surveillance and propaganda by ever-present “telescreens.” We’re not there yet but the growing number of requests from law enforcement agencies turning to Google to access information on users raises big questions about what may happen in states where abortion, or helping someone to obtain one, is once again a serious crime.

In the first half of last year, Google received more than 50,000 subpoenas, search warrants and other legal requests for data Google retains, according to the company’s transparency report.

Outside conventional law enforcement, some states are considering the bounty-hunter approach embedded in Texas’ notorious anti-abortion law Senate Bill 8, which offers cash rewards to would-be plaintiffs for successfully finding and suing anyone who aids a woman’s access to abortion—even, as it often has been said, her Uber driver.

All of which reminds me of the bad old days before Roe v. Wade, when women seldom had the right to choose abortion unless they had a lot of money and other resources.

Those days came back to me as I watched “The Janes,” a new documentary streaming on HBO and HBO Max about Chicago’s old Jane Collective, or “Jane” for short. Volunteers, mostly women, ran the underground service from 1969 to 1973 to help pregnant women in need to obtain abortions, which still were illegal in Illinois, as in most states.

They didn’t have Google location services to worry about back then, although they constantly had to dodge police even as they advertised their services through word of mouth and ads in the underground Chicago Seed saying simply, “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane,” a name chosen for its easy-to-remember simplicity.

Ironically, as Jane founder Heather Booth says in the documentary, “We always thought the police knew about it.”

She relates a story about one woman who was married to a police officer and brought their pregnant daughter to Jane. “Although I didn’t ask, I had every reason to believe that it was the policeman who directed his wife about where to go,” Ms. Booth says. “So we think that it actually was a service that was useful in the society.

“Abortion had not been politicized yet,” she said, referring to how ferociously the issue has become a battle cry for the political right.

Jane ended after one of their apartments was raided by Chicago police in 1972 and seven of its members were arrested and charged with enough abortion counts to send them to prison for as much as 110 years.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973 and the charges against the Jane women were dropped.

Will those days return? In some ways, they already have as various anti-abortion politicians and activists push for even tougher laws and regulations, including efforts to seek and prosecute abortion providers as we might chase domestic terrorists.

Sanity must prevail if justice is to survive. We still need to protect everyone’s reasonable right to privacy, including, I hope, the right of women to have power over their own bodies.

The writer is a syndicated columnist and senior member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board.