Meta provided user information to police in Nebraska that led directly to the prosecution of a 17-year-old girl for alleged crimes relating to an abortion, court documents show. The company could have challenged the legal order, but instead provided the teenager’s direct messages to cops, who are now charging the girl with three felonies for using a mail-order abortion pill and burying the miscarried fetus.
According to court documents first published by Motherboard (the case itself was first reported by the Lincoln Journal-Star), a Nebraska detective was investigating “concerns that a juvenile female… had given birth prematurely supposedly to a stillborn child.”
He apparently did not believe that the child was stillborn, though an autopsy (after exhuming the body seemingly without reason) was consistent with the story, showing that the fetus had never had air in its lungs. But because it was in a plastic bag, he asked Meta to provide all the girl’s Facebook messages, photos and other data for “statements that might indicate whether the baby was stillborn or asphyxiated.”
This information was duly provided, and messages appear to show the girl discussing taking an abortifacient medication. Based on this information, police raided the family’s home, seizing six smartphones and seven laptops, with data like internet history and emails totaling 24 gigabytes. Among this trove the investigators hope to find the evidence of a teenager ordering abortion pills.
Now the 17-year-old is being tried as an adult for performing an abortion after week 20 of pregnancy, performing an abortion without a license, concealing a dead body, concealing the death of a person and false reporting.
It must be pointed out that at no point before they received the messages from Facebook was there any evidence of a crime beyond improperly disposing of a miscarried fetus. The detective’s asphyxiation theory, based solely on the presence of a plastic bag, was incompatible with the autopsy evidence, which supported the girl’s account. Generally speaking, it seems cruel and unusual to conduct a multi-day investigation into a miscarriage and panicked disposal of remains.
Officially, the request for information pertained to “Prohibited Acts with Skeletal Remains,” though this was clearly a smokescreen for an investigation presupposing another crime without any evidence. One wonders whether other improper burials receive a similar level of care from the Norfolk police.
Facebook/Meta has challenged court orders for user information before. Facebook’s policy on challenging a request for user data is that if the request is not consistent with applicable law or their policies, or if it is legally deficient or overly broad, the company will challenge it or tailor the information it provides. (That’s why there are a lot of requests where “some data” is produced.)
Whether the data request authorities at Facebook were aware of these circumstances is unclear. I have asked the company for comment on its decision to hand over the data, as well as its intentions around other cases where its data may incriminate someone in states where abortion is illegal, and I will update this post if I hear back.
Update: Meta has issued a statement on the case, which reads in part: “Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion. The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion.” I’ve asked for more information on what the police did share. A 17-year-old girl and a hastily hidden stillborn seem like something that might deserve closer inspection than a blanket grant to all that kid’s data.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that this kind of data request can and now has led directly to prosecution of people for abortion. Some tech companies have taken measures to protect the privacy of those seeking the procedure, though most have carefully avoided taking a strong stance, and will not rule out complying with requests for such data. Apparently Facebook placed itself in the latter camp.