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planned parenthood in St Louis

Pro-choice advocates and staff hold a rally outside the Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services Center in St. Louis, Missouri, May 31, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Progressives in Congress Push Google to Stop Collecting Abortion Patients' Location Data

Lawmakers worry the tech giant's practices "will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive healthcare."

Jessica Corbett

"Google cannot allow its online advertising-focused digital infrastructure to be weaponized against women."

That's according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and 40 other progressives in Congress who sent a letter Tuesday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai urging reforms to data collection and retention practices given the anticipated reversal of Roe v. Wade.

While privacy advocates within and beyond Congress have long raised alarm about location data from devices such as cellphones, such concerns have risen in recent weeks since the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion signaling the end of Roe, which affirmed the right to abortion.

If the court's decision to overturn Roe is finalized in the weeks ahead, abortion could swiftly become illegal in over half of U.S. states, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute. It is with that knowledge that more than three dozen federal lawmakers are urging changes at Google.

"We believe that abortion is healthcare," states the letter. "We will fight tooth and nail to ensure that it remains recognized as a fundamental right, and that all people in the United States have control over their own bodies."

"That said, we are concerned that, in a world in which abortion could be made illegal, Google's current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cellphone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive healthcare," it continues. "That's because Google stores historical location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government agencies."

As the letter details:

While Google collects and retains customer location data for various business purposes, including to target online ads, Google is not the only entity to make use of this data. Law enforcement officials routinely obtain court orders forcing Google to turn over its customers' location information. This includes dragnet "geofence" orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location at a given time. In fact, according to data published by Google, one-quarter of the law enforcement orders that your company receives each year are for these dragnet geofence orders; Google received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020.

Reporting on the lawmakers' demand, Insider noted that "in March, a federal district judge ruled that Virginia police, in serving Google with a geofence warrant to get location data, violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches."

The outlet added that "Google did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comments."

Highlighting the differences between what data is generally collected from Google's Android devices versus Apple iPhones with Google applications, the letter asserts that "Apple has shown that it is not necessary for smartphone companies to retain invasive tracking databases of their customers' locations."

"While Google deserves credit for being one of the first companies in America to insist on a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that is not enough," the letter adds. "If abortion is made illegal by the far-right Supreme Court and Republican lawmakers, it is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will obtain legal warrants to hunt down, prosecute, and jail women for obtaining critical reproductive healthcare."

According to the lawmakers, "The only way to protect your customers' location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place."

The digital rights group Fight for the Future echoed that position Tuesday with its own grassroots letter—which is open for signatures—also "calling on the company to stop amassing users' location data, because in a post-Roe world this data will be weaponized against people seeking abortions."

"Google is choosing to amass this data not to improve the experience of users, but to squeeze out a few extra surveillance-driven advertising dollars," Fight for the Future tweeted Tuesday. "And this business model could soon put abortion-seekers in serious danger."


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