Google Urged To Shed Data That Could Identify Women Seeking Abortions

Democratic lawmakers are urging Google to shed location data that could be used to identify women who seek abortions.

“Google cannot allow its online advertising-focused digital infrastructure to be weaponized against women,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) and 40 other Democratic lawmakers say in a letter sent Tuesday to CEO Sundar Pichai.

Earlier this month, a draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to Politico. Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the authenticity of the draft, but said the opinion isn't yet final. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, 26 states are expected to pass new restrictions on abortion, or enforce existing restrictions that were previously considered unconstitutional.

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

Wyden and the other lawmakers note that Google “stores historical location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government agencies.”

The officials elaborate that the police “routinely” obtain court orders requiring Google to disclose information about customers' locations -- such as geofence warrants, which require Google to disclose identifying information about smartphone users present at a particular location and time.

(Last month, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that geofence warrants are unconstitutional, but it's not yet clear whether other judges will follow suit.)

“The most detailed information held by Google comes from Android smartphones, which collect and transmit location information to Google, regardless of whether the phone is being used or which app a user has open,” the lawmakers write.

They suggest that even though Google only collects data when users have opted in, the design of the operating system encourages people to do so.

“Google has designed its Android operating system so that consumers can only enable third party apps to access location data if they also allow Google to receive their location data too,” the letter states.

Google also collects location data from some iPhone users, but only if they are signed into an account on their phones and using a Google service. 

The lawmakers are asking the company to stop collecting “unnecessary customer location data,” and to avoid retaining “non-aggregate location data about individual customers, whether in identifiable or anonymized form.”

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