‘We don’t actually have much data privacy and that can be a problem’: UW data expert on keeping info private after Roe reversal

MADISON, Wis. — On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order seeking to firm up some abortion protections, including data privacy. According to data experts, the reversal of Roe v. Wade opened up more cracks for sensitive information to fall through. 

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“The reversal of Roe, the Dobbs decision, just again brought lots and lots of new people to the realization that we don’t actually have much data privacy and that can be a problem,” said Dorothea Salo.  

It’s been on the mind of Salo, Distinguished Faculty III at UW Madison’s Information School, before the Roe decision.  

“Right now the legal landscape really doesn’t control this,” she said. “Here in Wisconsin, there have been a couple of bipartisan data protection bills in the Senate and the Assembly and they just haven’t gone anywhere.” 

She said where abortion is against the law, police could be more motivated to reach into your pocket. “Health apps on mobile, such as period tracking apps for obvious reasons have come up, but also fitness trackers, anything that could release or could make apparent someone’s pregnancy status.” 

And experts said they could come up with information that could be used to prosecute people seeking an abortion or medical care for a miscarriage — as well as those who assist them.   

“There are companies that exist to compile and sell data about people, they are called data brokers,” said Salo. “And law enforcement can buy data from them just as anyone else can.”  

So what can you do to watch for those watching over your shoulder? For one: “turn your phone off, your phone is a constantly exploding privacy bomb.”  

“When you’re not using it, put it in airplane mode or just turn it off so that it can’t do something like betray your location when you really wish that it wouldn’t,” Salo said.  

iPhones have some anti-tracking features you can activate. “Turn off ad personalization. There are other things like randomizing your ad ID, there are other things that Apple lets you do,” Salo said. Android devices, she said, have significantly less flexibility in that area.  

People could also consider changing their search engine, Salo said. “I would suggest (to) stop using Google. Really. Google keeps all of your searches and compiles them into a data dossier on you.” 

“You can try to shut that down to some extent via tweaking your Google settings but the better move honestly is to move to a privacy-preserving search engine like DuckDuckGo,” Salo said.  

She also encourages everyone to use the free Consumer Reports security planner, which lets people select what devices and information they fear are at risk and develop a plan of how to protect them.   

“The nice thing about the security planner is it’s not telling you what you’re worried about, it wants to listen to what your concerns are,” she said.  

As you find more ways to protect your information, tell others what you’ve learned, Salo said.

“Explain to them, show them how, help them configure their mobile, help them install browser plugins,” she said.  

Finally, according to Salo, citizens need to reach out to their state and federal representatives “and say data privacy, data protection is an issue that’s important to me; please consider doing something about it,” because the more ears that listen could mean fewer eyes spying. 

“If we start getting loud about some of these arguments, then real data protection, real data privacy law, is within our reach, I believe this,” said Salo. “But we have to get serious about it.” 

Salo is available through the UW’s BadgerTalks program to speak about individual privacy and security online to any Wisconsin organization that can pull together 30 or more attendees, at no cost.