Accessing Abortion or Other Sensitive Services? Privacy & Safety Techniques
Protect yourself online and off, if you access abortion, activist, or other sensitive resources
In the aftermath of the Roe decision, women in search of abortion resources need support for doing so safely and privately. Without technical protections, everything women say or do online is captured and available for analysis by just about anyone from law enforcement to data brokers, to an invisible army of commercial behavior information consumers. It’s been widely reported that cell phones are routinely used to report location information, and text messages have been used to incriminate women. Everyone trying to navigate their way through the abortion battlefield now must be able to protect themselves.
Weaponization of womens’ health care information resources may be a recent development, but other activities have long been subject to surveillance and used for targeting “undesireables.” The need to operate securely online is nothing new, it’s just that now there is unfortunately a new “market” for how-to information, women who are at risk of being criminalized for their health care decisions.
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This is a long and detailed dossier of practices that individuals can use to protect their privacy, whether posting commentary, seeking information, searching, planning, scheduling, or traveling. Some of these suggestions are “industrial grade,” suitable for support organizations to use in support of their constituents.
If you are not a “techie” then you may need to find someone to help you with some of these techniques. Given the threat level that some people may experience based on their activity, some of the necessary countermeasures require effort. Good luck, and respond with comments or questions.
Each set of suggestions has a “Basic” and an “Advanced” section, so people with varying levels of capability and need can adapt this information to their situation. Additional resources are listed at the end.
As you go about securing your sensitive activities from surveillance, make sure to keep up your normal patterns of innocuous behavior. Just because you are taking control over some aspects of your life and cloaking them for safety, doesn’t mean you can’t keep playing Wordle or watching cat videos.
These guidelines pertain to both phones and desktop/laptop systems.
Use the Tor Browser – maybe you have heard of it: a highly secure browser that automatically connects to websites over a very complex network of cooperating computers, making your online actions almost impossible to trace back to you. It can thwart all but very sophisticated attacks against behavior and privacy. No woman should be without it now. Get it here, the installation is very straightforward and requires no special setup: https://www.torproject.org/download/
Keep all personal abortion-related information or behaviors off your normal social media, and take it underground to an anonymous account, if you need social media features to navigate your needs
Create new private social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) and use an assumed name. Then let only trusted people in your personal network know about the account, if desired.
Do not connect any activity on the new private accounts with your current accounts.
Follow multiple unrelated and random other accounts and get as many unrelated and random followers as possible.
You can add some innocuous messages and comments on other posts.
Use account and personal names that blend in, and which are used by many others.
STOP USING GMAIL. Even though Google’s politics may be sympathetic to women’s rights, and they have the muscle to resist law enforcement to some extent, you are better off using a secure email service. Here are a few:
Protonmail.com – Switzerland
Hushmail.com – Canadian
Tutanota.com – Germany
Swisscows.com – Switzerland
STOP USING GOOGLE docs, calendar, or account. Both Protonmail and Tutanota have or are developing competitive tools. Of course, you can continue to use Google tools normally for non-sensitive activity.
STOP USING CHROME except for “normal” non-sensitive activities. Firefox is the easiest and most painless alternative with many more additions that can be useful. Firefox Focus is helpful too. But for anything highly sensitive use Tor as described above
STOP USING GOOGLE SEARCH. Don’t use Duckduckgo either – its ownership has become somewhat suspect. Use these instead, but DO NOT install their browser extensions:
The above recommendations apply to corresponding Microsoft products as well
Don’t use any Amazon products for anything besides reordering dish soap and the like.
In your browser, disable “default search engine” and select your search engine manually by going to its website or use the Tor browser that allows you to set Startpage as your default search engine.
Never use your true name in any of the new accounts you create. If you can change account names, screen names, email address names that currently include your information, you should. Anything you have done using those identifiers will still be discoverable.
Get a VPN. Most people are currently using them. They are essential for day-to-day Internet use for normal activities but again the best option for very sensitive activity is Tor. Protonmail paid accounts include a VPN, and Mozilla (Firefox) has one. There are many other commercial products, as well. Using both Tor and a VPN is sometimes not as secure as using Tor alone and is not necessary. Do NOT use so-called “free” VPNs from minor or unknown companies.
Privacy settings on your phone are complicated and too much to add to this post. Refer to some of the other resources at the end of the post or do your own research on privacy settings for your phone.
For social media accounts, you can generate artificial profile photos at https://generated.photos/face-generator/new.
The faces are sometimes detectable as artificial because of anomalies in the image. Look carefully and generate a new one if there are obvious mismatches in ears and earrings, parts of eyeglasses or jewelry that don’t make sense, etc.
Removal of an identifying watermark on the image may require a paid account but there also may be other ways to remove it.
You can use https://simplelogin.io/ (recently bought by Protonmail) to create email addresses that don’t identify you and can be deleted and created at any time. Hushmail (described above) also allows you to create aliases.
If you need a phone number to register online accounts, set up an account at https://mysudo.com - their numbers work with many sites for verification. You do NOT need to provide personal information to use Mysudo for this.
You can create an anonymous credit card number (not a debit card) with Mysudo in case you need to pay for sensitive services. Be aware, though, that you must provide your identity to them to get a card, which they must provide under subpoena.
Anonymous financial transactions are extremely difficult in general because of anti-money-laundering law. You may want to investigate cryptocurrency.
Add features that block social media trackers on websites. There are many offerings that will add this security to your browser and is vital when visiting sensitive websites that may include ubiquitous social media trackers. The Planned Parenthood website contains social media trackers!
uBlock origin is excellent but can be complex
AdBlockerUltimate is a good choice
PrivacyBadger is from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a pioneer in online privacy and freedom
Consider organizing a group of trusted friends who all agree to browse to sensitive websites, sign up on “get more information” or “contact us” pages, and otherwise provide cover. If you can create a crowd to hide in, it makes investigation much more difficult for adversaries. This is herd behavior that hides your specific activity in a collection of many other people’s, requiring an adversary to analyze all activity to isolate a target.
Personal proxy: You can connect with a friend who is outside the danger zone and outside the reach of adversaries, to be a personal proxy. For example, use a secure messaging app (see below) to contact a friend in a foreign country or another state. This person could perform sensitive online operations on your behalf and communicate securely with you using the techniques in this blog. Consult with an attorney if you are concerned about getting others involved who are out of state or the country.
Phone, Location, & Physical Security:
These guidelines are in addition to making sure your phone’s general privacy settings are set correctly.
STOP using your phone apps for anything other than basic (or secured) communications and normal, innocuous patterns of behavior unrelated to sensitive matters. Delete ALL apps related to your sensitive activities (note – this is not sufficient, but it is necessary.)
A "burner number" using an app is easy to get and is useful for some basic anonymity. It may not be sufficient, as it has limitations and may not be as secure as some of the other recommendations here. It can help with basic needs.
DON’T text or iMessage sensitive information, or use any messaging features from Facebook, Instagram, or other apps not designed specifically for security.
Signal is the best choice for secure messaging and is simple to use; it requires both parties to be set up with it. Telegram is not as secure.
You can use Mysudo (described above) to generate a phone number to use with Signal, and not reveal your real phone number. Use secure email if you do not want to share any phone numbers.
DITCH your Android phone, or at least do not use it for anything related to sensitive issues. iPhones aren’t perfect but they are far better than standard-issue Android platforms.
DITCH your cell for sensitive travel! You have probably heard about mobile providers supplying location data, and unless you get a totally “black” phone, the phone’s location information can be captured and tied back to you. Your best option is leaving your cell phone at home when traveling to any sensitive destination.
If you MUST take your mobile phone, put it in airplane mode or remove the battery when you are near your location. Better yet, get in the habit of keeping your phone in airplane mode unless you need it.
Routinely Keep Bluetooth off unless you need it.
Even in non-sensitive areas it’s a good idea to shut off your phone’s WiFi.
Be very careful about photos that could be used as evidence that you were in a sensitive location.
If you have a late model car, it is sending location telemetry. Your best option is to take a cab, pay with cash, and have the cab drop you off a walkable distance from your destination. Or use public transport if available.
Do NOT use ride-share apps any other app for arranging transportation. Call the cab instead.
Wear nondescript clothing with no markings of any kind. Wear a nondescript hat if possible. Assume cameras are ubiquitous and vigilantes may be photographing people near sensitive locations. Routine surveillance cameras operate everywhere and you cannot rely on legal protection to prevent the footage from being used against you.
If you try Mysudo for an anonymized SMS mobile number and a site doesn't work with the number, you can get a second text-only “burner phone” via US Mobile for about $5/month. However, you need to give them your true payment and shipping information and they will have to respond to a subpoena if it comes to that.
Your burner cell phone can be used for voice if you add a voice plan. You can churn your cell plan by canceling and then opening a new account to get a new SIM card. You can buy a phone for $20 to $50. You can consider sharing a burner phone with multiple trusted friends.
You could double up, using Mysudo to obtain a credit card number, then use the credit card number to order a mobile burner phone. This means two subpoenas instead of one.
There are websites that claim to provide anonymous SMS numbers, but most services know these numbers and they can’t be used. Google voice numbers can’t be used either.
However, whenever possible, only use accounts that do not require SMS verification for sensitive activity.
Consider organizing groups of trusted friends to collectively travel to sensitive locations. Authorities would have a more difficult time identifying or singling out an individual for investigation, increasing the cost and slowing any hostile proceedings
Good luck and stay safe out there! This is always a moving target, so you need to be too.
ACLU Activist training
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Reddit Privacy subreddit - always be skeptical and perform your due diligence on social media information, but Reddit has some good contributors.
DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice, nor advocacy of any specific technique where outlawed. It is a compilation of other freely available information on privacy, security, anonymity, and obfuscation.
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