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Nebraska Police Obtained Facebook Messages About Teen's Alleged Abortion

Facebook's parent company Meta handed over the data after being served with a search warrant, court documents show.

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Facebook parent Meta provided Nebraska police with messages between a teenager accused of having an illegal abortion and her mother after the social media giant was served with a search warrant, court documents show.

Police in Norfolk, Nebraska, started the investigation in April before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established abortion rights. The Supreme Court's decision has sparked concerns about how online data could be used as criminal evidence against people seeking abortions.

The Lincoln Journal Star earlier reported that 41-year-old Jessica Burgess is facing criminal charges for allegedly helping her daughter, who was 17 years old at the time, abort, burn and bury her fetus. The mother pleaded not guilty, and will face a trial in Madison County District Court. (CNET isn't identifying the daughter, who was a minor at the time of the alleged abortion.)

The teenager told a Norfolk Police detective that she miscarried and gave birth to a stillborn, court documents say. Nebraska bars most abortions 20 weeks after fertilization and police determined from the teen's medical records that she was more than 23 weeks pregnant at the time.

When the detective interviewed the teenager about the timing of the miscarriage, the teen scrolled through messages on her Facebook Messenger account from April, when she was trying to get her mother's attention. The detective then identified the mother and daughter's Facebook accounts.

"I know from prior training and experience, and conversations with other seasoned criminal investigators, that people involved in criminal activity frequently have conversations regarding their criminal activities through various social networking sites, i.e. Facebook," Ben McBride, a detective for the Norfolk Police Division, said in an affidavit supporting the search warrant to Meta. The document states the detective believes the premises of Meta "are being used for the purpose of securing or keeping evidence related to Prohibited Acts with Skeletal Remains."

The detective outlined the Facebook data he was seeking related to the investigation, including photos and private messages. The police were then able to seize more than 250,000 kilobytes of data tied to the teenager's Facebook account, including account information, images, videos and messages, and more than 50,000 KB of data associated with Jessica Burgess' account, according to court documents. 

The Facebook messages suggested that Jessica Burgess had given her daughter instructions about how to take abortion pills after obtaining them, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. After police obtained the Facebook messages, Jessica Burgess faced two more felony charges for allegedly performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor, The Lincoln Journal Star reported. Burgess and her daughter faced other charges in June, including removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body.

Meta didn't answer questions about how many of these types of requests it's received.

Meta spokesman Andy Stone told Forbes that he couldn't immediately confirm any details about the incident. He tweeted late Tuesday that the company received the warrants in June before the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade.

"The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion," Stone tweeted.

Motherboard earlier obtained documents about the case that included the messages between the mother and daughter.

Neither the mother nor the daughter immediately responded to request for comment.

The police and Meta's actions have sparked more scrutiny over the social network, which has been plagued with data privacy scandals. On Tuesday, some Twitter users were urging women to #DeleteFacebook and the hashtag was trending.

Civil rights advocacy group Color of Change also raised concerns that "anti-abortion extremists" would use social media to "coordinate the harassment and bounty hunting of people seeking abortions."

Messages on Facebook Messenger aren't encrypted by default, which would prevent Facebook or anyone else from viewing the messages. Facebook Messenger users can send encrypted messaged by turning on a feature known as secret conversations.