FBI investigates Facebook posting of Minnesota woman's abortion records

Three different Facebook pages posted images of a Minnesotan woman's face, sonogram, and Planned Parenthood intake form.

Three different Facebook pages posted images of a Minnesotan woman's face, sonogram, and Planned Parenthood intake form. Ellen Schmidt, Star Tribune

In October, a Minnesota woman logged into Facebook and found – queasily – several posts about her.

The posts, found on three different profile pages, not only had pictures of her, but of her sonogram from a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she’d sought an abortion. There was even a photo of her intake form, which stated how long she’d been pregnant, and what methods of abortion she should consider.

One post included a document prominently displaying her birth control prescriptions. Another labeled her a “baby killer.”

It should go without saying that this is all extremely private information. So the woman went to the Minneapolis’ FBI office, beginning a months-long investigation into who did this, how, and why.

Joseph Murphy, a cyber investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Apprehension, submitted a search warrant application later that month and traveled to Facebook’s California headquarters.

The warrant only recently became public. That’s because Facebook has a policy giving users a heads up before giving investigators information on their profiles, and the FBI didn’t want them to catch on just yet. A 90-day gag order kept it quiet. 

According to the Star Tribune, the warrant doesn’t include any information on how these Facebook users got ahold of something so private. One of the users who posted the information referred to the woman by a family nickname – suggesting that they knew each other. Murphy’s warrant said at least one of the pages – with 3,000 friends looking on – was “used to harass, oppress, persecute, and intimidate” her.

That isn’t that surprising. The world of Facebook is messy and mean-spirited. More than half of all Americans reported they were harassed online in 2018, according to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League. At this point, Facebook and lawmakers are still trying to figure out what is merely bad behavior, and what is criminal or expulsion-worthy. Some 80 percent of those surveyed think the government should strengthen laws against online hate.

There are also those who disagree. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump vowed to “monitor censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms” after the website permanently banned a rash of its most extreme users, many of them far-right conservatives. (Laura Loomer, who filmed a bizarre, conspiracy-mongering documentary on Congressional Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis this year, was on the list. So was Infowars founder Alex Jones.)

Facebook claimed it was making an effort to remove users who “promote or engage in violence or hate, regardless of ideology,” but that hasn’t stopped Trump from taking it a little bit personally.

“…We have what’s known as FREEDOM of SPEECH!” he tweeted on May 3. “We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

In the Minnesota woman’s case, outing her Planned Parenthood experience may not have just been a hurtful thing to do. There might be a tinge of illegality. The warrant indicates these posts might count as stalking – normally a misdemeanor, but possible to elevate to a felony in some cases.

So far, no charges have been filed, nobody’s in custody, and the investigation remains ongoing.