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 more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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