Research Raises Privacy Concerns Over Abortion Clinic Websites’ Tracking Tool Use

A recent researcher letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine has found third-party tracking tools on 99 percent of examined abortion clinic websites. Concerns have been raised by the researchers about the threat to data privacy this presents. Although tracking tools are widespread online, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling highlighted serious questions about the security of data pertaining to abortions, which some believe might be used to convict those who had abortions. Disclosing information with third parties that might not adhere to the same high privacy standards poses the risk of jeopardizing that information.

Based on the National Abortion Federation clinic list, the researchers examined 414 abortion facilities and 244 distinct web sites as some of the websites were shared among faciltieis.  Researchers focused on 223 accessible online sites, 221 of which had a third-party data transfer, after taking broken connections into consideration. Furthermore, a third-party cookie was present on 69% of the sites. The researchers discovered that only 66 parent companies controlled the 290 distinct third-party domains where data transfers were found. On websites for abortion clinics, Google and Meta were the most common tracking entities. The IP address of the user and the website they visited were frequently included in the data transfers. The existence of a tracker on any website is not necessarily harmful, and the data provided here does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person had an abortion. However, the researchers contend that sensitive data must now be kept out of the wrong hands more than ever since the stakes in relation to abortion data are higher than ever.

“This code is installed by website maintainers, typically to add functionality, such as advertisement campaign monitoring or social media linkage,” the research letter stated. “However, such code may allow advertisers, social media companies, and other entities to record when someone visits an abortion clinic’s website and how they navigate that site. Routinely linked with other data, this browsing history could contribute to evidence that someone has sought an abortion.”

In the reseerch letter, the researchers have requested abortion faciltieis to audit their websites to locate and remove third-party tracking tools as browsing data does not fall under HIPAA protection. Researchers have also advised Individuals who are seeking an abortion to follow HHS guidelines to ensure privacy protection such as implementing tracking-blocking browser extensions and adjusting privacy settings in browsers and smartphones.