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Facebook transferred chat messages between mother and daughter, now charged with abortion

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Facebook turned over a mother and her daughter’s chats to the Nebraska Police Department after they received a warrant as part of an investigation into an illegal abortion, court documents show.

The investigation, launched in April before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, is one of the few known cases in which Facebook is passing on information to help law enforcement prosecute an abortion case, but it also exemplifies a scenario. that abortion rights experts have warned that this will become more common as all abortions become illegal in many states.

Madison County prosecutors say Jessica Burgess, 41, bought and gave abortion pills to her daughter, Celeste, who was 17 at the time, then helped her bury and then re-bury the fetus. Norfolk’s Daily News reported the case for the first time. The two were charged last month and plead not guilty. A lawyer for the two women did not respond to a request for comment.

According to an affidavit from Detective Ben McBride of the Norfolk Police Investigations Unit, police started with a tip from a woman who described herself as a friend of Celeste’s, who said she saw her take the first pill in April.

under a Nebraska law enacted before Roe was destroyed, abortion is illegal 20 weeks after an egg is fertilized. According to McBride’s affidavit, Burgess had a miscarriage when she was about 23 weeks pregnant, shortly after taking abortion pills.

McBride then requested and in June received a warrant to access the mother and her daughter’s digital lives, confiscated six smartphones and seven laptops, and forced Facebook to transfer chats between them.

The alleged chats, published in court documents seen by NBC News, show a user named Jessica telling a user named Celeste about “What I ordered last month” and instructing her to take two pills 24 hours apart .

Norfolk Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook stores most user information in plain text on its servers, meaning the company can access it if forced to do so with a warrant. The company routinely complies with law enforcement requests.

“Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement officials in early June, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, mentioned abortion,” Meta, the company that owns Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday evening.

“The arrest warrants were related to charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents show that at the time, the police were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who had been burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion,” the company said. . “Both warrants were originally accompanied by nondisclosure orders, which prevented us from sharing information about them. The warrants have now been lifted.”

Facebook Messenger offers end-to-end encryption, meaning chats between two users are only visible on users’ phones and not readable by Facebook or any government agency filing a legal petition with the company. But the option is only available to people using the Messenger app on mobile devices, and messages are not encrypted until users select the option to mark chats as “secret.”

“I know from previous training and experience, and conversations with other seasoned detectives, that people involved in criminal activities often have conversations about their criminal activities through various social networking sites, such as Facebook,” McBride said in his warrant request.

Prosecutors charged Jessica Burgess with three felonies and two felonies and Celeste Burgess with one felony and two felonies. All charges related to performing an abortion, concealing a body and providing false information.

Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reproductive rights policies, said the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overthrow Roe v. Wade, Nebraska is highly likely. has not changed. law enforcement officers to file the charges, as the state has not changed its law since then and the case began in April.

But it’s the kind of case abortion law experts expect to see more of in a post-Roe world, she said.

“The police could have decided not to charge them, but it seems that the police are throwing the book at the mother and daughter and accusing them of everything from criminal abortion to false reporting,” Nash said. “This is the kind of response we expect to see Dobbs’ decision and state bans on abortion.”

Jake Laperruque, the deputy director of surveillance at the Center of Democracy and Technology, a think tank that promotes digital rights, said tech companies that store readable information about users who plan to have abortions will likely continue to receive warrants as more states increase. prosecute abortion-related crimes.

“This will continue to happen with technology companies that store significant amounts of communications and data,” Laperruque said.

“If companies don’t want to end up handing over data repeatedly for abortion studies, they need to rethink their data collection, storage and encryption practices,” he said.

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