Mar 14, 2023 - Technology

Texas abortion lawsuit revives calls for encrypted messaging

Illustration of a padlock with a slide to unlock touch button.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A recent lawsuit in Texas against women who helped a friend access abortion medication is renewing calls for tech giants to make end-to-end encryption the default on their messaging services.

Driving the news: A Texas man recently filed a civil lawsuit against three women who he alleges helped his ex-wife obtain abortion-inducing medication and terminate her pregnancy, according to the Texas Tribune.

The lawsuit has prompted Fight for the Future, an internet rights advocacy group, to renew calls for Meta, Twitter, Google, Apple and any other company running a messaging platform to make end-to-end encryption the default on their services.

  • If a message is end-to-end encrypted, it's impossible for tech companies to see what their users are saying — and thus, more difficult for them to comply with data requests from law enforcement during investigations.

What they're saying: "The no-brainer first step is implementing default end-to-end encryption for all messaging, so that tech companies can’t be forced to turn over people’s private messages," Leila Nashashibi, a campaigner for Fight for the Future, said in a statement.

Catch up quick: Even before the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion and privacy advocates were warning people to lock down their digital communications and turn to encrypted services like Tor private browsers, Signal and Proton Mail.

  • Law enforcement authorities also used Facebook messages last summer to bring criminal charges against a Nebraska teen who allegedly had an abortion, according to Forbes.

The big picture: Many of the tech giants that advocates are targeting have already started implementing end-to-end encryption on their messaging services.

Yes, but: The Texas case's chances of advancing remain murky. The plaintiff alleges his ex-wife had a self-managed abortion in July 2022, but Texas' post-Roe abortion law didn't go into effect until August.

  • The complaint is heavily based on screenshots of text messages among the four women. But it's unclear how these screenshots were obtained or whether encryption could've prevented them from being made.
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