State Spying Poses ‘Roadblock’ for Interstate Seekers of Abortion, Transgender Care: Report

“Digital surveillance data makes profiling easy and suggests that travel data will be weaponized to identify new targets for healthcare prosecutions and investigations.”

By Brett Wilkins. Published 7-18-2023 by Common Dreams

Automated license plate reader (ALPR/LPR) cameras scan license plates of cars crossing into Pensacola Beach, Florida. Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/CC

A report published Tuesday details how digital surveillance can be used by police and prosecutors to criminalize patients seeking abortion and gender-affirming healthcare outside their home states.

The report—entitled Roadblock to Care: Barriers to Out-of-State Travel for Abortion and Gender-Affirming Care—was authored by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a New York-based privacy and civil rights group. The publication comes as Republican-controlled state legislatures pass a wave of abortion and gender-affirming healthcare bans, forcing people seeking such care to travel out of state.

“Surveillance doesn’t stop at the state line,” STOP executive director Albert Fox Cahn said in a statement. “Even as progressive states seek to protect abortion and gender-affirming care within our borders, anti-choice states are continuing to expand the threat that they will prosecute residents who leave the state to find evidence-based medical treatment.”

“It’s crucial for patients to understand the ways that their movements can be tracked by law enforcement, even out of state,” he added. “And progressive lawmakers and travel companies must take urgent steps to protect the right to travel anonymously and safely. Until we do, every hotel reservation and bridge toll will be just one subpoena away from being used against a patient in court.”

Belying conservative arguments that issues like abortion and gender-affirming care should be left up to the states to decide, some GOP-led legislatures are trying to criminalize patients who leave their home states for either type of healthcare.

The report examines how police and state officials can use license plate readers, street cameras, ticket information, and other data to identify and track people seeking, assisting, or providing out-of-state healthcare.

“Digital surveillance data makes profiling easy and suggests that travel data will be weaponized to identify new targets for healthcare prosecutions and investigations,” the publication states. “Location data brokers already offer maps indicating where visitors to particular clinics live. STOP used one such platform to place the homes of some visitors to an Illinois abortion clinic across the river in Missouri, where abortion is banned.”

STOP research director Eleni Manis warned: “There’s no such thing as the open road anymore. No matter how healthcare seekers travel, they are likely to be surveilled. But there are relatively safer ways to travel—especially for individuals not already targeted by law enforcement.”

“Meanwhile,” Manis added, “it’s up to lawmakers and companies to prevent surveillance data from being weaponized against healthcare seekers.”

In one such effort, Illinois’ Democrat-led Legislature last month passed a bill aimed at protecting the identity of out-of-state abortion patients by banning police from sharing data collected by license plate readers. If signed by Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, the law will take effect in January.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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