color photograph of a person riding an orange bicycle in a bike lane past a mobile digital billboard that reads "slack isn't safe"
A cyclist passes a vehicle displaying a mobile billboard calling on Slack to offer end-to-end encryption outside the Slack offices in San Francisco on May 31, 2023. (Photo by NOAH BERGER / AFP) (Photo by NOAH BERGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Abortion rights advocates are accusing the digital communication platform Slack of endangering abortion-seekers who use the platform to coordinate abortion-related information. A coalition of 96 abortion rights, digital rights, social justice, and other civil society groups sent a letter to Slack last month calling on the company to implement end-to-end encryption. 

In the first year post-Roe, police have prosecuted defendants using evidence from social media in abortion cases. Advocates now say that Slack, which abortion funds frequently use, needs to take steps to ensure private messages remain private. While Slack messages have not been used in a legal setting against an abortion-seeker yet, in December, Slack admitted to a security breach, and in July 2022, 0.5% of Slack users were also impacted by a security issue. According to Slack’s Transparency Report, data has been requested and shared with law enforcement. From Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2021, five search warrants were issued, and content data, including public and private conversations, were disclosed. 

“Slack is falling short in terms of the most basic guardrails for platform safety and privacy, which could have seismic implications for users,” said Caitlin Seeley George, the campaigns and managing director at Fight for the Future, one of the organizations who signed on to the letter, in a press release. “End-to-end encryption keeps people safe, and safety must be a built-in feature on all of our platforms. By not addressing this security flaw, Slack is aiding the criminalization of abortions and other expressions of bodily autonomy.”” 

The letter also calls on Slack to offer tools to stop harassment on the platform, including blocking and reporting features. When Slack introduced the ability to direct message people outside of one’s workspace, there were countless reports of workplace harassment through direct messaging on the application. Slack rolled back part of the features shortly after, including being able to send a message with a connection request. Slack has not acknowledged the letter publicly or responded to Prism’s request for comment.

“While Slack says that it only provides user data to law enforcement when it is legally required to do so, in states where abortion is being criminalized, law enforcement can and will use subpoenas to force Slack to hand over the internal messages of abortion funds, abortion providers, and reproductive rights organizations, as well as private individuals who use Slack to message friends, family and coworkers,” the press release announcing the letter reads.

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of California obtained records showing that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram indirectly provided user data access to law enforcement as a tool to monitor activists and protesters. A 2022 Gizmodo investigation identified 32 brokers selling data on 2.9 billion profiles of people pegged as “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products.”

“A key component of collective action is communication. We all deserve to know our communications are safe. Workers, consumers, friends, and activists need end-to-end encrypted communications platforms with safety features like blocking, muting, and reporting,” said Charlotte Slaiman, competition policy director at Public Knowledge, in a statement. “I’m hopeful that Slack will take this responsibility seriously and offer these important safety features for users.”

Advocates haven’t heard about any changes to Slack’s encryption since the letter was made public. Fight for the Future held on-the-ground actions at Slack headquarters in San Francisco and Denver in May, demanding the company take security measures into account and protect abortion-seekers on its platform. They have also launched the Make Slack Safe campaign, a petition calling on the company to implement end-to-end encryption.

Former Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield pledged to match up to $1 million dollars in donations to the National Network of Abortion Fund after Roe was overturned. According to a Slack spokesperson, the donation matching goal was met, and donations were made. In a statement from a Slack spokesperson, they said Slack has its users’ best interests in mind and already works to protect them. 

“By default, Slack encrypts data at rest and data in transit for all of our customers. All our plans offer customizable retention settings, where customers can automatically delete messages and files after set periods of time,” a Slack spokesperson said in a written statement. “Slack will not share customer data with government entities or third parties unless we’re legally obligated to do so—and we make it our practice to challenge any unclear, overbroad, or inappropriate requests.” 

Without end-to-end encryption, advocates say Slack is leaving abortion-seekers, providers, and their communities vulnerable to surveillance and prosecution by police, employers, and more, despite their public support.

In 2018, Slack then-Chief Security Officer Geoff Belknap tweeted that end-to-end encryption is “not something we’ve had much demand for from customers.” Now, the organization boasts more than 12 million users in more than150 countries, raising the stakes.

George says Fight for the Future uses the communication platform Element and suggests Wire is another end-to-end encrypted solution.

“We think that end-to-end encryption should really be the default on any communications platform, again, to ensure that only the people sending the message and the intended recipients can access them,” George told Prism. “That’s really kind of the best way that security experts and rights groups have determined that people can ensure their communications aren’t being unknowingly accessed by other folks. If you’re sending personal messages to one person, you should be able to trust that only that person is able to access that message.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...