Google’s data collection could put abortion seekers at risk, Democrats say


Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR

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

The letter precedes the planned overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that protected the federal right to abortion, after Politico released a draft opinion that would do just that. The court has yet to issue a final decision, but the chief justice has confirmed that the project is genuine.

This prospect has raised concerns that location data or search histories could be used against people seeking abortions or those offering them in states where it is illegal to obtain them.

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Led by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, the lawmakers wrote, “We are concerned that, in a world where abortion may be made illegal, Google’s current practice of to collect and retain extensive records of cellphone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists seeking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care, as Google stores location information records of hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it regularly shares with government agencies.”

According to the letter, Google said it received 11,554 geofencing warrants in 2020, a type of court order that would require the company to hand over user data to a certain location at a certain time. It is not known how many of them Google has cooperated with.

“While Google deserves credit for being one of the first US companies to require a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that’s 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 win legal warrants to hunt down, prosecute and imprison women for obtaining essential reproductive health care. The only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is not to 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 manufacturers to maintain invasive tracking databases of their customers’ locations. Google’s intentional choice to do so creates a new digital divide, in which privacy and security become a luxury. Americans who can afford an iPhone enjoy greater privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions of Americans using Android devices.

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

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

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