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EDITORIAL

With Roe overturned, Congress must act on data privacy

It’s incumbent on lawmakers to prevent state governments from circumventing people’s Fourth Amendment rights and to protect consumers from being harassed by antiabortion activists.

Elena Abrazhevich/Adobe

As soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a wave of abortion bans were either automatically triggered or swiftly implemented in states in the South and Midwest. In response, a network of groups, ranging from grass-roots organizers to the country’s largest employers, started laying the groundwork to help people who live in those states and are seeking abortions to travel to places where the procedure remains legal.

It’s a far cry from making abortion universally accessible, but it’s better than nothing — that is, unless certain antiabortion politicians get their way. Since the day the landmark decision fell, antiabortion politicians and activists have been drafting model legislation that would not only ban abortions in a given state but also criminalize going out of state to receive one. One of the ways these potential laws would do that is by following Texas’s vigilante system that was imposed last year, which empowers private citizens to sue people who violate the state’s abortion law.

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When states begin to criminalize not just the act of providing an abortion but receiving one as well, then women will be at risk of being surveilled and targeted by state governments and antiabortion vigilantes — getting dragged into a courtroom instead of simply receiving the care that they need. It’s yet another reminder that Congress desperately needs to revamp digital privacy laws, in this case to prevent state governments from simply circumventing people’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights and to protect consumers from being harassed by antiabortion activists.

Given the gravity of the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s time for ambitious legislation, and Senator Elizabeth Warren has taken a big step toward that end. Anticipating the Dobbs decision, she introduced a sweeping bill that would, in effect, ban all sales of location and health data — a move that would dramatically regulate what has become a multibillion-dollar data broker industry.

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“Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere by selling their most private information,” Warren said in a statement. Indeed, as the law currently stands, private companies and third-party data brokers have stunningly little consumer-protection regulations to navigate when selling people’s personal data. And while that data is often used for things like targeting ads or various industry research, it has also been used for more sinister purposes.

The Department of Homeland Security, for example, is known to have purchased location data — harvested from an assortment of apps, be they for games, weather, or e-commerce — and used that information to arrest unauthorized immigrants. The fact that government agencies are able to purchase this data should be alarming to anyone. It means that law-enforcement agencies can easily avoid obtaining warrants to search through someone’s data simply by purchasing that information from a third-party source. It’s a loophole to the Fourth Amendment, which is why Senator Ron Wyden, a cosponsor of Warren’s bill, previously introduced similar legislation, which had bipartisan backing, known as the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act.

The government is hardly the only entity to take advantage of the loose regulations of data sales. Last year, a priest resigned after he was outed by a religious publication that had gained access to his private data from Grindr, a gay dating app. And well before Roe was overturned, a Boston-based executive helped antiabortion groups send antiabortion ads to what he called “abortion-minded women” while they were sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics.

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While it’s unlikely that Warren’s bill will garner enough support to surpass the Senate filibuster, it doesn’t mean that these ideas are dead on arrival. To the contrary, there is currently a comprehensive bipartisan bill seeking to overhaul data privacy protections that is making its way through Congress. And there is still plenty of room to negotiate and tack on amendments that would ensure that people’s most private data, including health and location, do not just get handed over to anyone with a credit card.

It’s not every day that one of Americans’ most fundamental rights is completely taken away. And as more Republican states take advantage of the Supreme Court stripping away federal abortion rights, more women will be in danger — of receiving unsafe abortions, having high-risk pregnancies, and, potentially, having their most personal data used against them. Congress cannot allow that reality to stand.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.