A group of more than 40 Democratic members of Congress has urged Google to stop collecting and storing “unnecessary” location data over fears it could be used to identify people seeking abortions.
The letter was sent to Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, ahead of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 court case that guaranteed a person’s constitutional right to an abortion. If repeal, individual states could decide to heavily regulate or ban the medical procedure, raising concerns that location data or search histories could be used against those seeking or offering abortions. in states where they are illegal.
Google, in particular, stores “historic location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users,” the letter notes, “which it routinely shares with government agencies.”
In 2020, Google received 11,554 geofencing warrants — also called “reverse location” warrants — a type of court order that compels the company to hand over user data in a certain geographic location at a specific time. The majority of these requests came from state and local authorities.
While it’s unclear how many of these requests Google has cooperated with, the letter urges Google to rethink its current practice of “collecting and maintaining extensive records of cellphone location data,” warning that it could become a tool for “far-right extremists seeking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.
“That’s because Google stores historical location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it regularly shares with government agencies,” wrote the Democratic lawmakers, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D- OR) and Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA). , 18th).
“While Google deserves credit for being one of the first American companies to require a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that is not enough. The only way to protect location data from your customers from such outrageous government surveillance is not keeping them in the first place,” the letter reads.
TechCrunch has contacted Google for comment, but we have yet to receive a response.
Geofencing warrants have been the subject of controversy for some time. TechCrunch reported last year that Minneapolis police used a geofencing warrant to identify protesters accused of sparking violence following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, and there was also the case of a Florida man wrongfully arrested in 2019 after riding a bicycle. at the scene of a burglary.
New York could soon become the first US state to ban law enforcement from using geofencing warrants after the Reverse Location Search Ban Act, first introduced two years ago, was sent back to committee last week, the first major hurdle before it could be considered for a floor vote. Tech companies, including Google, have come out in support of the state’s bill.