Technology

Democrats urge Google to stop collecting location data that could be used to identify people seeking abortions

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Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR
Sarah Silbiger | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A group of 42 Democratic lawmakers urged Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a letter Tuesday to stop collecting and keeping unnecessary or non-aggregated location data that could be used to identify people seeking abortions.

The letter comes ahead of the anticipated reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that protected the federal right to an abortion, after Politico published a draft opinion that would do just that. The court has not yet issued its final ruling, but the Chief Justice confirmed the draft was authentic.

The prospect has raised fears that location data or search histories could be used against people seeking abortions or those who offer them in states where they are illegal to obtain.

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Led by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the lawmakers wrote, “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 cell phone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking 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 routinely shares with government agencies.”

According to the letter, Google has said it received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020, a type of court order that would require the company to turn over data from users in a certain location at a certain time. It’s unclear with how many of those Google has cooperated.

“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 lawmakers wrote. “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 health care. The only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place.”

The lawmakers drew a distinction between Google and Apple, saying, “Apple has shown that it is not necessary for smartphone companies to retain invasive tracking databases of their customers’ locations. Google’s intentional choice to do so is creating a new digital divide, in which privacy and security are made a luxury. Americans who can afford an iPhone have greater privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions Americans using Android devices.”

Last week, 16 Democrats signed onto a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan, urging the agency to protect data privacy for those seeking reproductive healthcare.

A Google spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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