Mother and Daughter Charged For Abortion With Help of Facebook Chat
Police uncovered the pair’s private Facebook chat history and charged them with illegal abortion and concealing a dead body, court documents reveal.
The charges against the women are based on abortion law (Nebraska outlaws abortions 20 weeks post-fertilization unless the mother’s life is in danger), but women’s health campaigners and digital privacy advocates say the case illustrates the dangers of ubiquitous digital surveillance in a post-Roe America.
Since Roe v. Wade, Facebook’s parent corporation Meta and other Big Tech companies have made grandiose promises about reproductive healthcare, said Caitlin Seeley George of Fight for our Future. These firms’ hypocritical monitoring methods criminalise those seeking, arranging, and giving abortions.
Celeste Burgess, 17, and her mother Jessica Burgess were investigated after a report that they illegally buried Celeste’s stillborn child. The two ladies informed Norfolk, Nebraska police investigator Ben McBride they would discussed the subject on Facebook Messenger, prompting the state to grant Meta a search warrant for their chat histories, data, and images.
The Messenger chat history showed Celeste and Jessica discussing Celeste’s home abortion medicine. Celeste was 28 weeks pregnant, in her third trimester.
Police seized the pair’s computers and phones based on chat history. Jessica is accused of performing an abortion 20 weeks after fertilisation and without a licenced doctor (both felonies). Celeste (who is being prosecuted as an adult) is accused of removing, hiding, or leaving a dead corpse.
Lincoln Journal-Star and Forbes originally reported on the case, and Motherboard published detective McBride’s affidavit.
Facebook’s parent company Meta said the data search request was “valid” and “legal” and did not reference abortion.
“The warrants concerned criminal charges, and court documents indicate police were investigating a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion,” Meta’s communications director Andy Stone tweeted. “Both of these warrants were originally accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing any information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”
By pointing out that the warrant did not specify abortion, Meta seems to be trying to separate itself from allegations that its data-collection policies can be used to punish women in the US who have illegal abortions.
Campaigners note that Meta must comply with legal requests for data and that it can only change this if it stops collecting such data. This would have meant making end-to-end encryption (E2EE) the default on Facebook Messenger. This would have required cops to access the pair’s phones to read their messages. (Messenger has E2EE, but it must be turned on manually. It is on by default in WhatsApp.)
“Meta can make end-to-end encryption the default for all of its messages, ensuring that no one but message senders — not even Facebook or Instagram — can access private conversations,” said George of Fight for the Future. “Until Meta stops monitoring private messages and protects its users with end-to-end encryption, it is complicit in the surveillance and criminalization of pregnant people.”
Private chat chats are only one type of digital evidence authorities may use to prosecute illegal abortions in the US. Researchers can seek digital health records, Google search history, text messages, and phone location data.