Abortion clinic web pages offer no safeguard from tracking women, study says

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Abortion clinic web pages offer no safeguard from tracking women, study says

Virtually all U.S.-based abortion clinic web pages include third-party tracking code enabling entities to sell or share browsing data with law enforcement or civil litigants post-Roe, new research suggests. Photo by Kristin Hardwick/Wikimedia Commons

Women who seek abortions are being urged to take significant precautions when searching for information on their computers and cell phones now that the Supreme Court has reversed Roe vs. Wade.

That’s because virtually all U.S.-based abortion clinic web pages include a third-party tracking code that enables entities to sell or share browsing data with law enforcement or civil litigants, new research indicates.

To protect patient privacy, the researchers said abortion clinics should audit their websites to identify and remove third-party trackers.

They added that because browsing data are not protected under federal health privacy law, called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, women who seek abortions should follow government guidance to protect their privacy: install tracking blocking browser extensions and adjust privacy settings on their browsers and smartphones.

The suggestions are found in a research letter that was published Thursday in JAMA Internal Medicine. Dr. Ari B. Friedman, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, is the lead author.

Perelman also holds a secondary appointment in Penn’s Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

The researchers looked at the web address of 414 National Abortion Federation member facilities, and then visited each URL by using a tool called “webXray,” which detects third-party tracking.

For each web page, the investigators recorded data transfers to third-party domains, according to the research letter. Typically, such transfers include a user’s Internet protocol, or IP, address and the web page being visited.

The researchers also recorded the presence of third-party cookies, data stored on a user’s computer that can facilitate tracking across multiple websites.

They found that 99.1% of the abortion clinics’ web pages included a third-party data transfer, and 69.1% included a third-party cookie.

“Across all web pages, we identified data transfers to 290 unique third-party domains owned by 66 unique parent entities,” the research paper said.

In an accompanying editor’s note, Dr. Mitchell H. Katz, president and chief executive officer of New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. called the situation “distressing.”

“As physicians, we should do all we can to protect the privacy and safety of individuals seeking abortion-related health care,” Katz said.

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