Carnegie Mellon University
September 09, 2022

Study reveals third-party tracking abundant on abortion clinic sites

By Ryan Noone

new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals over 99 percent of abortion clinic web pages include third-party tracking, putting the privacy of those visiting these websites at risk.

Privacy has become a significant concern following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which effectively overturned Roe v Wade, ending women’s constitutional rights to abortion.

As several states consider laws that would ban residents from going out of state to have the procedure, researchers fear law enforcement could begin using digital footprints to identify and prosecute individuals suspected of having abortions.

What is third-party tracking?

Third-party trackers are embedded into web pages through code, quietly collecting browsing history and information about devices accessing the site (including details about the browser, hardware, and more). Trackers often send the collected data to other companies or entities, which can be used to create targeted advertisements or for various other purposes.

“Those of us who study online privacy are well aware that online tracking is ubiquitous. The people who are aware that their web browsing is being tracked often don’t like it, but are also unlikely to do anything about it,” says the study’s co-author and Professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Institute for Software Research, Lujo Bauer.

“This study focuses on one scenario where the impacts of tracking could be particularly problematic. The results should remind us that we must continue developing technology and regulations that better balance commercial benefit with users’ privacy needs.”

Overall, there is a general misunderstanding of how protected our health information really is. While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly known as HIPAA, ensures the privacy and security of medical records maintained by health care providers, health plans and other covered entities, it does not protect information accessed through personal devices.

Researchers say that in order to protect privacy and health information, individuals should follow the US Department of Health and Human Services guidance, which provides tips on how to adjust privacy settings and install tracking blocking browsers, among others.