Jun 02, 2022
More than 40 civil rights groups on Thursday warned that Google's practice of collecting and storing the location data of its customers is likely to endanger people who seek abortion care if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as it's expected to this summer, and demanded the company put human rights ahead of its profit-driven marketing tools.
"Google's collection and storage of location data will make the company complicit in the criminalization of people seeking abortions in a post-Roe world," said the groups, including Fight for the Future, MediaJustice, and Amnesty International. "The company must immediately stop unnecessary collection and retention of our location data."
In a letter addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the organizations noted that potential criminalization of abortion patients is hardly a hypothetical outcome of the company's data collection, as "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," the letter reads.
\u201cWhen Roe v. Wade falls, law enforcement will use these same warrants to get Google to unmask the identities of people who visit abortion clinics. Imagine the court requests the info of anyone whose phone was in or around these boxes:\u201d— @firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon (@@email@example.com on Mastodon) 1654105916
In 2020, the company received 11,554 geofence warrants from law enforcement agencies, according to data published by Google. Should Roe be overturned, as a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion last month suggested it will be, prosecutors in more than two dozen states where abortion would be banned without the ruling in place could demand that Google share its data showing who visited abortion clinics over a period of time.
"In a world in which abortion could be made illegal, Google's current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cell phone location data will allow it to become a tool for extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive healthcare," said the groups.
The organizations pointed out that other major tech companies including Apple do not "retain the same quantity of customers' location data."
\u201cOther companies operate just fine with way less historical location data. As we get closer to abortion being criminalized in many US states, Google must reform its data practices and step up for users' medical privacy. Learn more and add your name here: \nhttps://t.co/Cpoxu3hJUJ\u201d— @firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon (@@email@example.com on Mastodon) 1654105916
The company's "surveillance capitalism business model," which it employs in order to sell targeted ads, "has long undermined our right to privacy," said Michael Kleinman, director of technology and human rights for Amnesty International USA. "It's terrifying to consider how the massive amounts of personal data gathered by Google and other companies can now be weaponized against people seeking to exercise their reproductive rights."
The groups' letter comes days after more than 40 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Pichai about the issue, warning that Android users could become especially vulnerable to Google's location data collection methods if Roe is overturned because Android smartphones "collect and transmit location information to Google, regardless of whether the phone is being used or which app a user has open."
Shortly after the draft opinion was leaked in May, location data firm SafeGraph was forced to stop selling data about people who visit abortion clinics after reporting on the company raised alarm.
To protect its users, the groups said, Google must take the same steps as SafeGraph.
"Google's location data collection has always been a problem. Pairing this excessive invasion of people's privacy with the likely future where the laws of our country give the government control over people's bodies will endanger millions," said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director at Fight for the Future.
"Google must act quickly to change its practices to stop this unnecessary data dragnet before it is complicit in the criminalization of abortions," George added.
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