Watchdogs Petition FTC To Investigate Google Over Location Data

Two advocacy groups are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google for allegedly reneging on a promise to shed data that could reveal smartphone users' visits to abortion clinics and other sensitive locales.

“Promising to implement a policy of deleting sensitive location records (including reproductive health-related location records) and failing to effectively implement that policy is a material misrepresentation that would likely mislead a reasonable consumer,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Accountable Tech write in a complaint filed Thursday.

The complaint largely stems from Google's July 2022 announcement that it planned to delete certain “sensitive” entries from smartphone users' “Location History” files.

“Some of the places people visit -- including medical facilities like counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others -- can be particularly personal,” Google senior vice president Jen Fitzpatrick wrote at the time. “If our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit.”



The watchdogs claim Google failed to live up to that promise. They point to anecdotal evidence, including a May 2023 Washington Post article by Geoffrey Fowler who reported that Google wasn't deleting sensitive location data “in any consistent way.”

“To test Google’s privacy promise, I’ve been running an experiment. Over the last few weeks, I visited a dozen abortion clinics, medical centers and fertility specialists around California, using Google Maps for directions,” Fowler wrote.

“In about half of the visits, I watched Google retain a map of my activity that looked like it could have been made by a private investigator.”

Accountable Tech also alleged that its own recent investigation -- which involved sending people to eight Planned Parenthood clinics -- found Google deleted the name “Planned Parenthood” from people's Location History, but not their routes.

“Google lacks a 'reasonable basis' to support the claim that it safeguards personal health location data by consistently and reliably deleting sensitive location records,” the advocacy groups allege in their complaint.

A Google spokesperson said the company is upholding its promise to delete "particularly personal" places from Location History if its systems identify them.

"Any claims that we’re not doing so are patently false or misguided," the spokesperson stated.

The company also disputes Accountable Tech's conclusions from its own investigation.

Google said last month that it will store location data on people's devices, instead of its servers -- a move praised by digital rights advocates.

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