Google will remove user location data for visits to abortion facilities

The computer company gathers vast amounts of personal information, which raises concerns that it might be used in abortion prosecutions.

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When asked to limit the amount of information it gathers that could be used by law enforcement for abortion investigations and prosecutions, Google responded publicly for the first time on Friday by announcing that it would delete its users’ location history whenever they visit an abortion clinic, domestic violence shelter, or other similarly sensitive location.

“If our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit,” Jen Fitzpatrick, a senior Google executive, said in a blog post.

The blog post reiterates Google’s stance that it opposes government demands for data that it deems to be excessively broad or unlawful, but it makes no mention of how the company will respond to inquiries about abortion. Users may currently totally disable location tracking on Google.

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Over the past week, Google and other major IT firms have come under pressure to explain how they will handle such requests. Every day in the US, Google already complies with hundreds of search warrant requests by turning over the emails, location information, and cloud-stored documents of its users. Law enforcement agencies have increasingly leveraged the massive data troves gathered by Big Tech to support investigations and prosecutions as they grow more tech-savvy.

Long before Roe v. Wade was overruled by the Supreme Court, privacy activists warned about the possibility that these same strategies may be used to investigate abortions. Google has previously opposed the government on matters involving data collecting, such as ten years ago when it opposed the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection activities.

Megan Graham, an attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, who counsels public defence attorneys on tech and privacy issues, believes that any dispute between tech companies and governments over data collection should be conducted in public so that everyday people and privacy advocates can participate.

“I hope if Google does make the decision to start pushing back when they get these, whether that’s in the abortion context or otherwise, that they do so in public,” Graham said. “Google’s voice is obviously important in the discussion because they have the data and they are the ones running he searches but their interests are not necessarily the same as the general public, or people who are concerned about privacy rights.”

Similar issues are being faced by other tech firms as Google. Since a draught of the ruling surfaced in May, Facebook executives have explored legal ways to address it, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Over 1,500 people have signed an Amazon employee petition calling for the company to support abortion rights more strongly and to stop funding anti-abortion politicians. Some Amazon employees phoned in sick on Friday to protest the company’s lack of response to the problem.