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USA: Facebook as a little helper for the police?

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Chats, text messages, videos: tech companies are repeatedly asked to provide information during investigations in the USA. What does this mean for users?

By Katharina Wilhelm, ARD Studio Los Angeles

When a crime is suspected, law enforcement agencies in the US can get almost anything, Rachel Cohen, a reporter at Vox News, told NPR: “There’s little they can’t get by going to Google or social media companies !”

Investigators can request a lot of data from Apple, Google Meta or Twitter: chat logs, for example, or movement data. Facebook even has its own department called LERT, which is run by a former police officer.

investigation in secret

US law enforcement agencies can request access to the data by submitting a search warrant. The users don’t even have to be informed about this, explains Chris Handman, former lawyer for the social media platform Snapchat and head of the data protection platform TerraTrue in an interview with Fox5: “This is the result of a law that was passed in 1986, long before many people had their own computers, let alone data in the cloud. Normally, with a search warrant at my home, I know when the police come knocking. In the digital world, I don’t know and the searches don’t even have to be limited in time. That leads to a lot of abuse as you can imagine.”

Companies like Apple, Facebook or Google can theoretically refuse to give out private data from users, but then they risk fines. Privacy advocates in the US have been warning for many years that tech companies collect too much data from their users and that there are too few regulations about what happens to this data.

Abortion decision has exacerbated problem

“Currently there are few rules for these companies, for example they have to delete your data. In Europe they are much more proactive on these issues than the USA, there are talks about new laws that gives hope. But at the moment we are in a bad place.” , according to Vox expert Rachel Cohen.

Activists for women’s health and rights see major problems, especially in connection with new, strict abortion laws in many US states. Because there are already cases from the past that could set a precedent: “An investigation by the New York Times showed that a one-hour visitor to a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in New Jersey was obtained for $160 from a data broker who compiled a list of all phone records who had visited this clinic in a week. Current legislation does not prohibit such a thing!” This is reported by the data protection podcast “Data Privacy Detective”.

No data security

Months before federal abortion laws were overturned, women were warned to delete their period-tracking apps. There, too, data could reveal whether a pregnancy was terminated prematurely. But not only period trackers, messenger services or search engines collect data. Credit card companies can also collect information about, for example, the purchase of abortion pills.

According to data protection officers, there is only security in what happens to one’s own data if, for example, chats are used that offer end-to-end encryption. In addition, one should not use credit cards, leave the phone at home if one wants to visit a counseling or abortion clinic and only pay in a safe way – for example cash. Or as the data protection podcast briefly advises users: “Just don’t create any digital data.”