Motherboard has obtained court documents that show Facebook provided police with a teenager’s private chats, in case about an abortion carried out at home.

The police in Nebraska then used those chats to seize her phone and computer, Motherboard reported. A 17-year-old girl and her mother have been charged with a series of felonies and misdemeanors over the matter.

It should be noted that Nebraska is not one of the US states to have changed its abortion laws since Roe v Wade was overturned in late June, after the US Supreme Court removed the country’s federal protection for terminations.

The US Supreme Court. Image credit: US Supreme Court

Harrowing case

As a result of the change, Google said last month it would automatically delete Android smartphone users’ location history when they visit locations such as abortion clinics.

Facebook, it should be stressed, compiled with a lawful warrant ordering it to turn over the DMs to police, and it said there was not mention of abortion being involved in the case.

Nebraska’s case relies on evidence from the teenager’s private Facebook messages, which show the mother and daughter allegedly bought medication online to induce abortion, and then disposed of the body of the fetus.

The court documents obtained by Motherboard allege that the abortion took place before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in June.

It makes for harrowing reading, showing how abortion could, and will be, prosecuted in the United States following the Roe v Wade change, and how tech companies will be compelled by law enforcement to help prosecute their cases.

The 17 year old teenager was 28-weeks pregnant, which was later than Nebraska’s 20-week post-fertilisation abortion ban. Exceptions to this are possible if there is a risk of death to the mother or risk of serious complications.

The mother of the teenager has been charged with five crimes (three felonies, including “perform/attempt abortion at > 20 weeks, perform abortion by non-licensed doctor, and removing/concealing a dead human body).

The teenage girl meanwhile has been charged with one felony, “removing/concealing/abandoning dead human body” and two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting.

She is being tried as an adult.

Lawful order

This tragic case highlights concerns from abortion rights activists and privacy experts, that people’s digital communications, location data, period app tracking information, or other private data will be used against them to criminalise abortion.

The case is expected to head for a jury trial in October.

Meta confirmed that it had not informed about abortion, and it compiled with a lawful court order.

“Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion,” a Meta spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement.

“The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion,” said the Meta spokesperson.

“Both of these warrants were originally accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing any information about them,” the spokesperson added. “The orders have now been lifted.”

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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