Google, in a blog post, announced that it will automatically delete the location history of those who visit abortion clinics. The update will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
After the US Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade, a landmark decision that used to protect abortion rights in the country, several states have, or plan to, severely restrict access to abortions.
Location data, search histories, and other digital trails can now become ways for law enforcement and vigilantes to track people seeking abortions.
Google's post mentioned that location history of visits to other places that are “particularly personal” like counselling centres, domestic violence shelters, fertility centres, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, etc, will also be deleted.
Avoiding Geofence Warrants
In May, 42 democratic lawmakers had sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, asking the company to stop collecting location data that could be used to identify people who get abortions.
Thanks to this new policy, Google will no longer be able to comply with any geofence warrants from law enforcement agencies demanding location data related to abortions.
Geofence warrants are an increasingly common tactic used by law enforcement agencies in the US, and Google has been receiving a high number of such requests since 2018.
In the blog post, the company mentioned that it will, "continue to oppose demands (from the government) that are overly broad or otherwise legally objectionable," in regards to data sharing, and that it will inform users if their data is being shared, unless they have been specifically ordered not to do so.
Google also mentioned that those using the Fitbit app can currently delete their data entry by entry, and will soon have the option to do it in an easier manner.
A Legitimate Concern
In the past, US law enforcement authorities have used a woman’s search history as enough evidence to deem her miscarriage as an abortion and charge her with second degree murder.
In 2018, Mississippi, Lattice Fisher was jailed for 2 years because she had looked up “abortion pills” on the internet.
A report by Privacy International in 2020 highlighted one of the methods through which anti-abortion organisations use data to target abortion seekers by developing digital dossiers on those seeking pregnancy options.
In light of these risks. many women are uninstalling their period tracking apps and deleting their personal data from them, especially after concerns over years that these apps have been selling sensitive user information.
Online data broker SafeGraph was also found to have sold location data of people who visit abortion clinics. It has now stopped selling this data, but raises the concern of how easy it is for anyone to get their hands on personal data through these third party brokers.
And now with “bounty hunter” laws in places like Oklahoma and Texas, selling data and leaking information regarding those who do seek abortions have been incentivised by the government they’re offering $10,000 or more to informants.
(With inputs from Vice and CNET)