A group of more than 40 Democratic members of Congress has called on Google to stop collecting and storing “unnecessary” location data lest it be used to identify and prosecute people who have obtained abortions.
The request was made in a letter sent Tuesday to Google CEO Sundar Pichai by members of the House and Senate, led by Sen. 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 that this 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 where abortion could be rendered 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 seeking to suppress people seeking reproductive health care.
The letter specifically refers to geofence warrants, a controversial technique in which law enforcement asks tech companies to provide data on all mobile phones that have passed through a geographically defined area during a certain period. . Geofencing warrants have been criticized for their use in investigating protesters during Black Lives Matter protests, and their use has increased dramatically in recent years: data released by Google showed a pronounced spike from 2018 to 2020.
Crucially, geofencing data is only available after a court-issued warrant — but with more than 20 states preparing to ban abortion as soon as possible. Roe vs. Wade is overturned, it is increasingly plausible that such a warrant could be used to target anyone visiting an abortion provider.
To prevent this from happening, the signatories of the letter are calling on Google to rethink its location data collection practices so that device data is only collected on an aggregated level, rather than on an individual basis. , and are not kept by the company 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 enjoy greater privacy vis-à-vis government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions of Americans using Android devices.”
Reproductive rights advocates have been on high alert since a draft notice leaked on May 3 suggesting the Supreme Court intends to strike down Roe vs. Wade. In particular, many have raised concerns that digital surveillance technology could be used to prosecute people seeking abortions. On the same day as the Democratic letter was released, the New York-based Surveillance Technology Watch Project released a report on the many ways people seeking abortions could be tracked, citing a number of existing cases where Data from Internet search history or credit card transactions has been used against people who have terminated their pregnancies.
In a statement, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, welcomed the congressional letter, saying Google should remove its location data or be “complicit 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 women at risk,” Cahn said. “There’s no way for Texas to station state police at every abortion clinic out of state, but with data from Google and other companies, they don’t have any. If the tech giants don’t act quickly, we’ll see pregnant women seeking out-of-state abortion care, only to return home with a warrant for their arrest.
So far, Google has made no public response to the letter; the company did not immediately respond to questions sent by The edge.