How US police use digital data to prosecute abortions
In late April, police in Nebraska received a tip saying 17-year-old Celeste Burgess had given birth to a stillborn baby and buried the body. Officers soon learned that her mother, Jessica Burgess, and a friend had helped her with transportation and burial. The police issued citations for concealing the death of another person and false reporting. But in June, they also charged Jessica with providing an abortion for her teenage daughter. Police had made the discovery after obtaining a warrant that required Meta to hand over their conversations on Facebook Messenger. The messages, which were not encrypted, showed the two had discussed obtaining and using abortion pills.
Warrants for digital data are routine in police investigations, which makes sense given how much time we spend online. Technology giants have for years responded to valid court orders for specific information sought by law enforcement, though some companies have done more to fight for our privacy than others. Millions of people now use apps that encrypt their calls and messages, like Signal and WhatsApp, so that no one can access their messages — not even the providers themselves.
The case in Nebraska is not the first in which police have used digital data to prosecute an abortion, and it won’t be the last. While digital data is rarely the main form of evidence, prosecutors use it to paint a picture in court; by showing messages sent to friends, internet searches, or emails from an online pharmacy. As in the Burgess case, however, it’s often people around the women who first notify the authorities — a doctor or nurse, a family member, or a friend of a friend.
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, it ended the constitutional right to abortion. In doing so, it gave states the power to regulate abortion or ban the procedure altogether, triggering a wave of abortion bans nationwide. At least 13 states now ban abortion with few or no exceptions. Georgia recently reinstated a ban after six weeks of pregnancy. And in many states, the fight over abortion access is still taking place in courtrooms.
A week after the ruling, Google announced it would delete location data for visits to abortion clinics and other medical facilities. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said we should review our privacy settings. The Digital Defense Fund encouraged us to use encrypted messaging apps. Some suggested that we delete our period tracking apps. It may seem odd to dedicate so much attention to digital privacy in the context of our reproductive rights. But a look at prosecutions between 2011 and 2022 illustrates why these conversations are needed.
In May 2011, police in Idaho charged Jennie McCormack with inducing her own abortion. The 32-year-old couldn’t afford a legal procedure. Instead, she took pills purchased online. NPR reported that McCormack confided in a friend shortly after the abortion. It was this friend’s sister who told the police. When officers arrived at her home, they found the fetus wrapped up on her back porch.
McCormack admitted to the police that she self-induced an abortion after ingesting a pack of five pills. At trial, she told the court that the medication was “FDA-approved,” “procured through the internet,” and “prescribed by a physician.” Years later, an appeals court noted that “McCormack’s sister allegedly found unspecified abortion pills online, paid $200 for them, and had them shipped to McCormack in Idaho.”
At the time, McCormack faced up to five years in prison. The case was eventually dismissed.
In March 2015, Indiana sentenced Purvi Patel to 20 years in prison for neglect of a dependent and feticide. Two years earlier, Patel had gone to the hospital with bleeding after delivering a child at home. She first told the medical staff that she had been ten to twelve weeks pregnant. But when questioned by two doctors, admitted to giving birth and said the baby was stillborn.
Patel told the doctors she had put the body in a paper bag and placed it in a dumpster behind a Target store, not far from her family’s restaurant. The hospital notified the police, who searched the area and recovered the bag. A doctor who participated in the search said “the baby was cold and lifeless” but “was an otherwise normal, healthy appearing baby.”
Court documents show that police obtained a search warrant for Patel’s phone. An officer with “training in examining electronic devices” downloaded her text messages. In reviewing the data, the police found that she had discussed her abortion with “at least one friend.” Patel had also shared that she’d obtained and taken abortion pills from Hong Kong.
An Indiana appeals court overturned the feticide conviction in July 2016. The court noted that in searching Patel’s iPad, “police found a customer service email from InternationalDrugMart.com.” The email confirmed that Patel had ordered mifepristone and misoprostol for $72. A detective ordered the same pills, presumably to confirm that it was possible to do so. Police also found Patel had visited a website titled “Abortion after Twelve Weeks.”
The court documents do not mention the type of phone Patel had or how police gained access to her messages. But the messages were at least three months old, suggesting that she likely did not delete the texts or the email from the online pharmacy.
Indiana’s attorney general decided not to appeal the court’s ruling. In September 2016, Patel was resentenced to 18 months for child neglect, less time than she had already served. The judge then ordered Patel’s immediate release.
In April 2015, police in Arkansas arrested Anne Bynum after she gave birth to a stillborn child at home. She was charged with concealing birth and abuse of a corpse. The state also charged her friend, Karen Collins, with performing an abortion.
Bynum, who already had one child and worked a minimum-wage job, never told her parents about the pregnancy. When her pregnancy became difficult to hide, she took medications to induce labor.
In a video interview, Bynum said she delivered the baby at home by herself, in the middle of the night. “She was just beautiful. Really beautiful. But eyes closed, mouth closed. Complete stillness.” Bynum wrapped up the remains and went to bed. The next day, she drove to the emergency room with the remains in the front passenger seat. Bynum said she “gave birth last night, but she didn’t make it.” Medical staff determined it had been a stillbirth.
When the hospital discharged Bynum days later, she was arrested on her way home. The sheriff put her in handcuffs and placed her in the back of the police car. Bynum’s trial was brief, just two days of testimony and a few minutes of jury deliberation. The judge sentenced her to six years in prison. An appeals court reversed the conviction in December 2018.
Exactly who notified the police remains unknown. The appeals court noted that “Bynum told friends, her attorneys, and her priest about the pregnancy and of her intent to put the child up for adoption when it was born.” On the morning after she gave birth, Bynum texted her attorney “who advised her to go see a doctor.” The attorney also called a funeral home and “was advised to have Bynum take the fetal remains to the hospital.”
It’s unclear whether Bynum shared the texts herself, or if police recovered them another way.
In January 2018, Mississippi charged Latice Fisher with murder for the death of her newborn the year before. The Washington Post reported that when paramedics arrived at her home, they found “a baby in the toilet, lifeless and blue, the umbilical cord still attached.” The baby was pronounced dead at the hospital. Fisher initially said she didn’t know she was pregnant, but later admitted that she had been aware of the pregnancy for at least a month. She also admitted to conducting internet searches for how to have a miscarriage.
Fisher reportedly “voluntarily surrendered” her iPhone to police. Court records show her phone’s “memory and data were then downloaded, including but not limited to Fisher’s past internet activity.” While reviewing that data, investigators learned that Fisher had researched “buy abortion pills, mifeprisone [sic] online, misoprostol online,” and “buy Misoprostol Abortion Pill Online.” Fisher had also “apparently purchased misoprostol immediately subsequent to these searches.” Another court document suggests police also searched her husband’s phone.
While there is no evidence that Fisher took the pills, prosecutors used her digital data to argue that she intended to abort her pregnancy. The murder charge was eventually dismissed.
Technology companies may not have many options for handling search warrants from the police, even when the investigations relate to abortion. But companies do get to decide how much digital data they collect about people and for how long they store the information. They also get to decide whether to offer end-to-end encryption, which would give people increased privacy for all of their messages. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Meta announced it’s making encrypted one-to-one chats in Instagram available to adults in the two countries. And while Elon Musk said Twitter should end-to-end encrypt direct messages prior to acquiring the company, it’s unclear if this will actually happen.
Last year, reporters found that Facebook and anti-abortion clinics collect sensitive information on would-be patients. The Markup also reported that Hey Jane, an online abortion pill provider, employed a series of online trackers that follow users across the internet — until the journalists reached out about the practice. More recently, ProPublica found nine pharmacies selling abortion pills also sharing sensitive data with Google and other third-parties. All nine were recommended by Plan C, which provides information about how to get abortion pills by mail. None responded to ProPublica’s request for comment.
In Abortion, Every Day, publisher Jessica Valenti reminds us that “if you are white, have money, and the ability to travel to a state where abortion is legal — you will have a much easier time than those from marginalized communities.” Everybody deserves access to reproductive health care. If the past decade is any indication, protecting essential abortion rights is going to require all of us, from doctors, nurses and attorneys to lawmakers, software engineers and voters.
Sarah Mitchell-Weed contributed research.
Tesla brings back European referral program as end of Q1 nears
Tesla is bringing back its referral program to Europe, a strategy that taps into the brand loyalty of customers as it seeks to preserve market share and boost sales before the first quarter of 2023 closes.
The referral program follows Tesla’s move to reduce prices in a variety of markets, including Europe, China and North America.
Starting Tuesday in Europe, new Tesla buyers can receive 100 so-called “Loot Box Credits” when referred by a current Tesla owner, who will get 2,000 credits for the referral. If the referred customer takes delivery before March 31, 2023, they’ll get a bonus of 5,000 free Supercharging kilometres, and the referrer will get 10,000 credits. Those credits can be redeemed for software upgrades, up to 10,000 kilometers of free Supercharging “and more.”
Tesla has never used traditional advertising, so the company has historically used its referral program to get its loyal customer base to promote vehicles. Those rewards have changed over the last few years. At certain points, owners could win rewards like having a photo of their choosing launched into deep space orbit, an invite to an upcoming Tesla event, or even free new Roadsters to owners who accumulated enough referrals.
Tesla realized such extravagant rewards were starting to eat into profits, so in 2019 the automaker paused the program and came back with a more reasonable one that gives the referral giver and receiver 1,000 miles of free Supercharging each.
Last November, Tesla launched a revamped referral program in the U.S., which gives out credits that can be put towards the purchase of Tesla solar products, like the Solar Roof and Solar Panels. Tesla also launched a program in China called Treasure Box, where owners get credits that can be used towards the purchase of accessories like vehicle chargers, t-shirts or shot glasses.
The move in Europe suggests that Tesla is trying to hold onto, or even grow, its market share dominance. Tesla was the most popular EV brand in Europe last year, with the Model Y and Model 3 topping the ranks at 138,373 and 91,257 sales, respectively. Following behind were the Volkswagen ID.4 with 68,409 unit sales, the Fiat 500 electric with 66,732, and the Ford Kuga plug-in hybrid EV with 55,018 sales, according to Inside EVs.
While Tesla was the most popular EV brand in Europe last year, it actually falls behind the large multi-brand OEMs. Volkswagen Group, which includes brands like Audi and VW, actually has the largest market share of plug-in EVs with 20.6%. Stellantis, BMW Group and Hyundai follow with 14.6%, 10.5% and 10.1%, respectively. Mercedes and Tesla are tied at around 9% share.
As of this week, Tesla has finally hit production capacity of 5,000 vehicles per week at its Berlin gigafactory — a milestone CEO Elon Musk had originally promised for the end of 2022. While production numbers don’t equal sales, it’s possible that the increased production in Europe could help the automaker maintain its position and gain even more market share in the future.
The referral program isn’t the only move Tesla has made to boost sales, particularly before it reports quarterly earnings. In January, Tesla cut prices for Model 3 and Model Y vehicles in the U.S. and Europe by 20%. Earlier this month, the automaker slashed Model S and Model X prices in the U.S. as well.
In December 2022, Tesla also provided up to $7,500 discounts for vehicles purchased and delivered before the end of the year in the hopes of attracting buyers who might otherwise wait for the new year when Inflation Reduction Act incentives would kick in.
Pinterest brings shopping capabilities to Shuffles, its collage-making app
Pinterest announced today that it’s testing ways to integrate Shuffles collage content into Pinterest, starting with shopping. Shuffles, which is Pinterest’s collage-making app, launched to general public last November. To use Shuffles, users build collages using Pinterest’s own photo library or by snapping photos of objects they want to include with their iPhone’s camera. The iOS-only app is available in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Shuffles will now have all of the shopping capabilities as regular pins. Users will be able to tap individual cutouts used in collages, see the brand, price, and other product metadata along with similar products to shop.
“Unlike typical product exploration, Shuffles bring an interactivity that makes the experience inspirational and fun,” the company said in a blog post. “Gen-Z is curating fresh, relevant content alongside their peers, which is quickly making for a marketplace of trendy, shoppable ideas. The high density nature of Shuffles, which can include layers of product cutouts from multiple Pins, allows consumers to dig deeper and also connect to other Shuffles that include the same Pins. As we look ahead to how consumer behavior is evolving, we’re testing ways of integrating Shuffles collage content into Pinterest, starting with shopping.”
Although Shuffles surged to become the No. 1 Lifestyle app on the U.S. App Store in August when it was invite-only, the app’s popularity has since declined. By bringing shopping capabilities to Shuffles, Pinterest is likely looking for ways to retain users on the standalone app.
Pinterest also announced that it’s exploring a new takeover feature for advertisers called “Pinterest Premiere Spotlight” that prominently showcases a brand on search. The company says the feature is designed give advertisers a new way to reach users on Pinterest.
The company says 97% of top searches on Pinterest are unbranded, which means users typically don’t type a brand name into their searches on the platform. This gives brands the opportunity to be discovered as they help consumers go from discovery to decision to purchase, Pinterest says. In the coming months, the company planes to offer additional ways to help brands connect with shoppers.
Pinterest also shared some new stats about its Catalogs offering, which lets brands upload their full catalog to the platform and turn their products into dynamic Product Pins. The company says it has seen a 66% increase in retailers setting up shop by uploading or integrating their digital catalogs on its platform, along with 70% growth in active shopping feeds year over year globally.
As part of its most recent earnings release, Pinterest revealed that its platform now has 450 million monthly active users globally, a 4% jump year-on-year. Pinterest has been focused on enhancing the shopping experience on its platform over the past few years, and said during its earnings call that it wants to make every pin shoppable, including videos.
The tide has shifted for solo GPs
Welcome to Startups Weekly, a nuanced take on this week’s startup news and trends by Senior Reporter and Equity co-host Natasha Mascarenhas. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.
It’s hard to be proactive after the tide has already shifted. However, that’s what we’re seeing happen in the solo GP world, where investors, hearing about institutional investor risk appetite changing, are extending fundraising timelines, cutting investment vehicle targets or planning to leave venture altogether. Some have learned it the hard way, while others, like Sahil Lavingia, are telling LPs to literally cancel their checks if they feel guilty about investing in venture capital while the market rocks and interest rates boom.
It’s a shift from the fund of fund mentality that felt commonplace last year, in which investment firms cut checks to early-stage, experimental investors to de-risk and even lead first checks into a generation of new startups. Now, the idea of backing just one, feels like a harder sell — depending on which institution you’re speaking to.
For my full take on this burgeoning tension within the venture world read my TC+ column: “Are solo GPs screwed?”
I know some of us are still reeling from the SVB mess, which is still very much unfolding. My hope with this piece is to offer nuance on how the market moves on from here for a very specific subset of check writers. In other words, yes, there’s a dreary dark cloud that is now more visible than before. But umbrellas exist. Somewhere.
In the rest of this newsletter we’re talking AI, icons and demo days. As always, you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram to continue the conversation. You can also send me tips at email@example.com or on Signal at +1 925 271 0912. No pitches, please.
It’s never GM; it’s only AI
Now that I apparently live in Cerebral Valley, it’s quite easy to find investors, founders or my great friends in the middle of a passionate conversation about artificial intelligence. Heck, we even screencast ChatGPT trying to explain SVB during wine night, recently.
Despite the overactive news scene, thanks to ChatGPT plug-ins, Google’s entrance and Canva’s magic, the best piece I read all week came from our own Devin Coldeway. In this analysis, Coldeway published a head-to-head comparison of top generative AI tools — asking them to create everything from a phishing email to code.
Here’s what to know: In the AI world, the compounding effect is almost impossible to encapsulate. Tech keeps beating itself, and advancement is only to be celebrated with a grain of hopeful salt. But, see it yourself if you don’t believe me!
Overheard at Techstars’ demo day
I went to an in-person demo day for the first time since 2019 this week, courtesy of 500 Global. There was a special, earnest energy in the room, partially because, as 500’s CEO Christine Tsai said, the 19 companies are sharing their vision for the future “around one of the darkest backdrops of Silicon Valley.” More to come on specific learnings, but below I thought I’d bullet point some of the tidbits I overheard while at the accelerator’s pitch session.
- “I find it very insightful to compare your revenue growth with your team growth — I personally don’t like operations-heavy companies, I definitely want to see more investment in the R&D and product [teams],” Cindy BI, partner at CapitalX.
- “We’re officially teenagers,” Tsai said on the accelerator’s 13th birthday.
- “When you think of a brand, you probably think of something like Nike. But to Gen Z, some of the biggest brands are people,” Detoure founder and CEO Meghan Russell.
- “We know how to get exits done,” Peter Wachira, CEO of Tripitaca, later adding, “We know how to get shit done.”
One of venture’s most iconic duos wants to have a word with you
I published a podcast interview with Kapor Capital’s Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, the entrepreneurial investing couple behind the top-tier impact investing outfit. The duo published a book recently, so we talk about that, their choice to step away from investing and the legacy they’re continuing to build out.
Here’s one key moment from the podcast: “It’s also worth pointing out, in the early days, there were a couple of people, white men, who were thinking about working with us and decided we weren’t going to make enough money so they went elsewhere. So I hope they’re kicking themselves and I hope they’ve learned something,” said Kapor Klein.
- I was on comedian Alexis Gay’s podcast, Non-technical, earlier this month to talk about everything other than my day job. Come for the croissant hate; stay for the devil’s advocate advocacy.
- Also, listen to Found, a podcast about the stories behind the startups. This week, the team published an interview with the brains behind “a genetics startup that looks to bring extinct species back to life to help with environmental conservation efforts.” Jaw = dropped.
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