A group of more than 40 Democratic members of Congress have asked Google to stop collecting and storing “unnecessary” location data for fear it could be used to identify and prosecute people who have had an abortion.
The request was made in a letter Sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday by members of the House and Senate led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and including well-known progressive representatives such as Ayanna Pressley, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We believe abortion is health care,” the letter reads. “We will fight tooth and nail to ensure it continues to be 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 where abortion could be made illegal, Google’s current practice of collecting and storing extensive data about cell phone location data will become a tool for far-right extremists who want to action against people seeking reproductive health care.”
The letter specifically refers to geofence warrants, a controversial technique in which law enforcement agencies ask tech companies to provide data on all cellphones that passed through a geographically defined area in a given period of time. Geofence warrants have been criticized for their use in investigating protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and their use has exploded in recent years: data released by Google showed a pronounced peak from 2018 to 2020†
Crucially, geofence data is only available after a court order, but with more than 20 states preparing to ban abortion once Roe v. Wade destroyed, it becomes increasingly plausible that such a warrant could be used to target anyone who visits an abortion provider.
To avoid this, the signatories of the letter are requesting Google to change its location data collection practices so that device data is collected only on an aggregated level, rather than on an individual basis, and is not retained by the company for longer than necessary. . The letter also contrasts Google’s location data policy with Apple’s decision to minimize location data retention, stating that “Americans who can afford an iPhone have more privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions of Americans who use Android.” devices.”
Reproductive rights advocates have been on high alert since a design advice has been leaked on May 3, suggesting the Supreme Court plans to overthrow Roe v. Wade† In particular, many have expressed concern that digital surveillance technology could be used to prosecute those seeking abortions. On the same day the Democratic letter was released, the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project published a report about the many ways in which people seeking abortions can be tracked, citing some existing cases where data from Internet search history or credit card transactions has been used against people who have terminated pregnancies.
In a statement, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, welcomed the letter from Congress, saying Google should either delete its location data or be “complicated in criminalizing abortion.”
“It’s not enough for tech companies to say they’re pro-choice, they need to stop collecting data that puts pregnant people at risk,” Cahn said. There’s no way Texas can station state police at every out-of-state abortion clinic, but with data from Google and other companies, there’s no need to either. If the tech giants don’t act quickly, we’ll see pregnant people seeking abortion care out of state, only to come home with an arrest warrant.”
So far, Google has not provided a public response to the letter; the company did not immediately respond to inquiries from The edge†