House Democrats Seek Answers from Meta on its Data Sharing Policies
Democrats from the Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote to the Meta CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, on August 31, 2022, to express their concerns about the release of private communications to law enforcement and seek clarification on its data-sharing policies. The conversations had taken place on Meta platforms between a mother and her daughter about an illegal abortion.
The police conducted a criminal investigation into Nebraska residents, Jessica Burgess, 41, and her daughter, Celeste Burgess, 18, over an alleged illegal abortion. The teenager is alleged to have had an illegal abortion after 20 weeks, then buried the fetus. When Roe v Wade was overturned, Nebraska was one of the states that made abortion illegal more than 20 weeks after fertilization.
The police launched an investigation after learning that a 17-year-old had unexpectedly given birth to a stillborn baby. The local police issued a warrant to Meta seeking access to conversations that had taken place between the mother and daughter on its platforms, according to a Deseret News report. Celeste Burgess was charged with three felony counts: performing an illegal abortion, performing the abortion without a licensed doctor, and then concealing a dead human body, along with two misdemeanors: concealing the death of another person and false reporting. Jessica Burgess was charged on two counts: performing an illegal abortion after 20 weeks and performing the abortion as a non-licensed doctor. Another individual, a 22-year-old man, was also charged with one misdemeanor: attempting to conceal the death of another person.
Meta issued a statement in response to the reporting of the case in the media seeking to correct factual errors in the stories, claiming “much of the reporting about Meta’s role in a criminal case against a mother and daughter in Nebraska is plain wrong.” Meta confirmed that the warrant made no mention of abortion. “We received valid legal warrants from local law enforcement on June 7, before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The warrants did not mention abortion at all,” said Meta. “Court documents indicate that police were at that time investigating the alleged illegal burning and burial of a stillborn infant. The warrants were accompanied by non-disclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The orders have now been lifted.”
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The Committee Democrats are seeking answers from Meta on its privacy policies regarding the protection of sensitive information of users of its platform and how the company ensures private information is protected while also complying with legal obligations, especially considering the company is likely to receive further requests from law enforcement seeking access to users’ sensitive data related to illegal abortions.
“We fear it is only a matter of time before Meta is asked by law enforcement to turn over personal data of users in which they specifically cite attempting or performing abortion as the crime being investigated,” wrote the Committee Democrats. “It is completely foreseeable that Meta may be asked to turn over other sensitive data based on conversations related to assisting a friend or family member with transportation to obtain an abortion or providing money for cab fare or hotel accommodations. The possibilities are endless and are endlessly troubling.”
Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health, Anna G. Eshoo, Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Diana DeGette, and Chair Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, Jan Schakowsky, have requested a briefing regarding Meta’s treatment of personal data and its policies and procedures regarding the sharing of that data with law enforcement and other outside parties.