The anti-choice movement has stepped up its attempts to intimidate abortion providers and their patients this week through a series of online attacks targeting the country's largest reproductive health care provider, Planned Parenthood, and ancillary access assistance groups the National Network of Abortion Funds and Abortion Care Network.
On Sunday night, a group of self-professed anti-abortion hackers claim to have breached Planned Parenthood's employee database with the intention of decrypting and releasing personally identifying provider information.
"Trying to mold an atrocious monstrosity into socially acceptable behaviors is repulsive," the hackers, who call themselves "E" and claim to be part of a group called "3301," told The Daily Dot. "Obviously what [Planned Parenthood] does is a very ominous practice. It'll be interesting to see what surfaces when [Planned Parenthood] is stripped naked and exposed to the public."
No provider data have been released, and there's no evidence any patient information was accessed. But with the climate of escalating provider targeting and violence, any reference to a list of names is reminiscent of the infamous "Nuremberg Files" website, which listed known abortion providers with an ominous legend: "Black font (working); Greyed-out Name (wounded); Strikethrough (fatality)."
"There's definitely something similarly sinister about seeing a list of abortion providers, given the history of the Nuremberg Files," David S. Cohen, a Drexel University associate law professor and author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, tells Rolling Stone. "Many providers already can't proudly talk to their friends and family about what they do because they live with the threat of violence....This is a world where you see a list, you get concerned about safety."
This attack comes as Planned Parenthood is already handling fallout from a series of deceptively spliced "undercover" videos being released by the well-funded anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress, and fielding threats from 18 male Republican members of the House to shut down the government again over non-existent federal abortion dollars.
The House left for August recess without taking action, but the Senate has a week left in its session. Despite a lack of support from pragmatists Susan Collins (R-ME) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), a contingent lead by presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-KY), could call for a vote on Monday to strip Planned Parenthood of all federal funding.
While fielding this onslought from all sides, Planned Parenthood hardly had time to reassure patients and notify the Department of Justice and the FBI before the next attack came on Wednesday.
"Today, the Planned Parenthood websites experienced a wide scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, a hacker tactic to overwhelm websites with massive amounts of traffic to block any legitimate traffic from getting in," the group's executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, said in a statement to Wired.
Thursday morning, the National Network of Abortion funds used social media to announce its own DDoS attack (later confirmed in a conversation with Rolling Stone).
Abortion Care Network Executive Director Nikki Madsen also confirmed a DDoS attack Thursday morning, speaking unequivocally about the intent of coordinated action that interferes with potential patients' ability to access help finding timely, safe abortion care.
"Anti-choice zealots will go to any length to stigmatize providers, politicize women's health and put abortion care out of reach," says Madsen. "This week they have hit a new low by hacking and disabling websites that provide individuals health care information and resources, including the Abortion Care Network."
The NNAF site came back online Friday morning; there's no word yet when the ACN site will be restored.
Planned Parenthood has elected to keep its site offline until it can "ensure that we are fully protected," says Laguens. Visitors to PlannedParenthood.org and PlannedParenthoodAction.org have been redirected to a series of splash pages with alternate contact methods; the first one declared, "Our site is not available due to an attack by extremists," and as of this writing it said, "Our normal site is currently undergoing maintenance."
"We deeply regret that in order to more fully protect our websites from these extremist attacks, our full online content will be temporarily unavailable to people looking for good, accurate health information," says Laguens. "We will continue to work to reach people where they are online, and our sites will be back up soon."
David Cohen calls the attempted breach of Planned Parenthood's confidential employee information "an act of domestic terrorism," referencing the history of provider-targeted assassinations, bombings and harassment in the decades since Roe v. Wade.
"When I heard about the supposed hack, my mind went directly to the fact that this is a way to scare people who work at Planned Parenthood. Putting their information — email, names or other information — out there is not meant to encourage people to send them kind emails saying 'thank you,'" says Cohen.
"This kind of disclosure of providers' personal information has long been a tactic of anti-abortion forces," he says. "Make no mistake: Abortion providers keep their personal information private because of the history of murder, bombings, arsons, stalking, assaults and other forms of attacks on abortion providers. This is a real threat that the hacker has knowingly exacerbated."
Planned Parenthood representatives are using uncharacteristically strong language as well.
"Planned Parenthood is the most trusted women's health care provider in this country, and anti-abortion extremists are willing to do anything to stop women from accessing the reproductive health care they are seeking," says Laguens. "Extremists have broken laws, harassed our doctors and patients, produced hack videos and now are claiming to have committed a gross invasion of privacy — one that, if true, could potentially put our staff members at risk."
Data from the Feminist Majority Foundation's latest Clinic Violence Survey released earlier this year detailed in irrefutable statistics what Cohen and his Crosshairs co-author Krysten Connon heard over several years as they interviewed more than 100 abortion providers in all parts of the country: 68 percent of reproductive health clinics nationwide experience frequent and regular anti-abortion activity: following providers home or to other job locations, and affecting others in their lives, including grown and minor children.
"The implicit threat is from the release of that information, with the knowledge of what someone could do with it," says Cohen. Abortion providers have faced in recent decades bomb threats and a rise in "wanted"-style posters, and eight clinic workers have been murdered since 1993.
"Basically, it's: 'Now you know who works there, now you know some information. Let them know how you feel about them and what they do.' It allows the public leaders of the anti-choice movement to distance themselves and appear more moderate while allowing the real crazies that are out there— and we know they're out there — to do worse."
While the "3301" hackers and the as-yet unidentified group behind the other site crashes this week haven't issued any direct threats, Cohen brushes off any notion of misguided goodwill on their part.
"Anyone releasing this supposedly collected data would know the history. To hide behind a facade of 'Oh, I didn't think anyone would do anything' would be more than just willfully ignorant of anti-abortion terrorism," he says. "It's sort of a wink wink, nod nod."
Even if the attack does nothing but associate Planned Parenthood with the word "hack," that could scare off some of the 2.7 million patients who use its clinics each year for all manner of reproductive health care services, spurring a health care access crisis in areas where Planned Parenthood is the only provider.
Including organizations like NNAF and ACN makes it clear that this effort is designed to, at the very least, get between as many people and the abortion care they need as possible in a landscape where more than 87 percent of people already live in a county with no abortion provider and state-level restrictions remain on the rise.