Shrek, Bots, and Whistleblowing: Dismantling the Texas Right to Life Whistleblower website in an Age of Dataveillance

On: October 2, 2021
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About Gabrielle K. Aguilar


   
(image provided by the author)

On September 1, 2021 Texas introduced a highly restrictive abortion ban called the Texas Heartbeat Act. It is the first of its kind to rely solely on enforcement by private individuals through civil lawsuits. In anticipation of the law taking effect, non-profit organization Texas Right to Life launched a whistleblower website (previously, prolifewhistleblower.com) in which individuals could anonymously report violators of the state’s anti-abortion legislation. What awaited the website was an onslaught of Shrek memes and false data– and later, their deplatformization not once, but twice.

In The Data Revolution, Rob Kitchin notes that,

 “While some data are considered relatively benign…other data are considered to be highly sensitive, for example those related to individuals which can be used to produce a detailed picture of the lives they lead and to regulate those lives.”

This commentary seeks to address ethical concerns of dataveillance, understood as surveillance enacted through the processing and analyzing of data records[1],  employed on the maternal body by the Texas Right to Life whistleblower website as well as highlight some of the digital acts by individuals who sought to dismantle it.   

Politics of Data: Ethics, Contention, and Consent

Foucault noted that “the body is directly involved in a political field” [2] and posed a fundamental question as to who then has power when it comes to control of the maternal body? Such a debate is an exercise in moral philosophy. 

If data can be seen as an “object whose production interests those who exercise power” [3], there is serious concern that data could in turn usher in a new wave of privacy incursions [4].

While etymologically the word ‘data’ is derived from the Latin dare, meaning ‘to give,’ [1] an ethical concern arises when that data is given vis-à-vis an individual without their consent. Data can therefore be “a potential site of struggle” especially regarding issues with political significance [5] (e.g. abortion) around which contention is expected.

According to the Texas Heartbeat Act, abortion providers, those who seek abortions, or even rideshare drivers who drop-off individuals at abortion clinics (as they ‘aid’ and ‘abet’ abortion) are at risk of being sued for a minimum of $10,000. The potential to collect such a sum incentivises individuals to exploit another’s personally identifiable information by leveraging technologies (e.g. whistleblowing websites like prolifewhistleblower.com) to assist in a new form of criminal justice, what Daniel Trottier refers to as “digital vigilantism” [6].

Dismantling prolifewhistleblower.com

While pro-birth activists have been called to enforce the Act [7], digital acts of rebellion from pro-choice activists have fundamentally challenged and undermined the website’s authority. As the character Shrek declared in the animated-comedy Shrek (2001), “Ogres are like onions…Onions have layers.” Let us unfurl the layers that led to the eventual dismantling of prolifewhistleblower.com.

Layer 1: Cryptic Messages

Late August, users on social networking services like TikTok and Twitter shared prolifewhistleblower.com while urging followers through cryptic messages to take actions to render it useless [8].

Nancy Cárdenas Peña, Director for policy and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, tweeted out:

“…Gosh, I wonder if they factored in people abusing the integrity of this system. Hmmm I hope ppl don’t abuse this! That would be terrible.”

TikTok user Victoria Hammett also shared a video suggesting, “Wouldn’t it be so awful if we sent in a bunch of fake tips and crashed the site?”

Layer 2: Shrek Memes and False Data

Users began to submit false data to the website as an expression of protest. As one user observed, and shared on TikTok, the website’s form accepted any type of file format– so they sent Shrek memes and porn and told viewers “you can do it too.”

Layer 3: Bots for Automated Activism

Programmer Sean Black sees an opportunity to automate his activism and develops a bot which runs a script to make it easier and faster to submit false data to the website. He publicized the script on TikTok and shared an iOS shortcut for users to easily download and use.

Engagement with data in this context enmeshes both technological engagement (e.g. software development, hacks and fixes) and political engagement (e.g. standard setting, redefinition of cultural valence, questioning of power relations) [5] to demonstrate acts of ‘Data Revolution’ [1]

Layer 4: Oh How the Whistle Blows

Shoshana Wodinsky, who in her own words “cover[s] the business of data for Gizmodo,” urges activists to blow the whistle on the whistleblower website itself, by reporting it to its original web hosting platform, GoDaddy.

Layer 5: Deplatformization (The First Time)

prolifewhistleblower.com is forced offline for violating GoDaddy’s Terms of Service [9] which state that the site will not collect (or permit anyone else to collect) any non-public or personally identifiable information about another without their express prior written consent. While Terms of Service have been a space for contestation in their own right, here they act as an ethical structure for which a website can operate within a platform.

Layer 6: Deplatformization (The Second Time)

prolifewhistleblower.com is moved to Epik, infamous for restoring controversial websites like Parler and Gab, but it was not long before it was again suspended and encouraged to be taken down altogether due to similar violations that GoDaddy outlined [10].

Layer 7: The Website Now

As of today, prolifewhistleblower.com redirects to Texas Right to Life’s website instead of the form that previously allowed citizens to submit highly sensitive and non-consensual data on others.

Conclusion

Every society operates with respect to a mix of informal and highly codified ethical positions enshrined in rules or principles [1]. Data in this commentary acts as a central concern for a ‘surveillant’ and complex socio-technical assemblage [1] and demonstrates how such assemblages are contingent upon the power and knowledge challenges that confront them [11]. Where Texas Right Life sought to collect private data on individuals, data activism by pro-choice activists manifested itself both as contention over the control of data and the maternal body, and as contestation through data sharing practices[5], namely the provision of quantities of bot-generated false data and the occasional Shrek meme.

Such whistleblowing websites are not novel in an age of dataveillance and the allure of a public panopticon complicates relations of visibility and control between governing bodies and citizens. Data too plays a part in that complexity.

References

  1. Kitchin, R. (2014). The data revolution : big data, open data, data infrastructures & their consequences . Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications.
  2. Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison (2nd Vintage books ed.). New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House.
  3. Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data politics. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 205395171771774–. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717717749
  4. boyd, danah, & Crawford, K. (2012). CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878
  5. Beraldo, D., & Milan, S. (2019). From data politics to the contentious politics of data. Big Data & Society, 6(2), 205395171988596–. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951719885967
  6. Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy & Technology, 30(1), 55–72. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-016-0216-4
  7. Leenerts, A. (2021, August 20). CALLING ALL PRO-LIFERS: Help enforce the Texas Heartbeat Act! | Texas Right to Life. Retrieved from texasrighttolife.com website: https://texasrighttolife.com/help-enforce-the-texas-heartbeat-act/
  8. McMenamin, L. (2021, September 3). TikTokers Swarm Texas Abortion “Whistleblower” Site. Retrieved from Teen Vogue website: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/tiktok-spam-texas-abortion?_ga=2.73881490.127254940.1633076947-809211420.1633076947
  9. GoDaddy Universal Terms of Service Agreement. (n.d.). Retrieved from GoDaddy website: https://nl.godaddy.com/legal/agreements/universal-terms-of-service-agreement
  10. Hollister, S. (2021, September 3). GoDaddy cut off Texas Right to Life’s abortion “whistleblowing” website, and it might be gone. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from The Verge website: https://www.theverge.com/2021/9/3/22656196/godaddy-texas-right-for-life-abortion-whistleblowing-site
  11. Clarke, A., Parsell, C., & Lata, L. N. (2021). Surveilling the marginalised: How manual, embodied and territorialised surveillance persists in the age of “dataveillance.” The Sociological Review (Keele), 69(2), 396–413. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026120954785

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