Google Urged to Stop Tracking Location Data Ahead of Roe Reversal

Lawmakers argue Android phone data could be “weaponized against women” if the US Supreme Court officially overturns abortion protections.

MORE THAN 40 Democratic members of Congress called on Google to stop collecting and retaining customer location data that prosecutors could use to identify women who obtain abortions.

“We are concerned that, in a world in which abortion could be made illegal, Google’s current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cell phone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care. That’s because Google stores historical location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government agencies,” Democrats wrote May 24 in a letter led by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). The letter was sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Specifically, Google should stop collecting “unnecessary customer location data” or “any non-aggregate location data about individual customers, whether in identifiable or anonymized form. Google cannot allow its online advertising-focused digital infrastructure to be weaponized against women,” lawmakers wrote. They also told Google that people who use iPhones “have greater privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions of Americans using Android devices.”

The draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade could be followed by strict limits or bans on abortion in many states, and Democrats wrote that “Republicans in Congress are already discussing passing a law criminalizing abortion in all 50 states, putting the government in control of women’s bodies.” 

Location Data From Android Phones

In their letter, Democrats told Pichai:

While Google deserves credit for being one of the first companies in America to insist on a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that is not enough. 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 only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place.

Google obtains detailed information “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,” they wrote. While Android users have to opt into this data collection, “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. In contrast, Google is only able to collect location data from users of iPhones when they are using the Google Maps app,” the lawmakers wrote.

We contacted Google about the letter yesterday and will update this article if we get a response.

Exactly how Google’s location privacy settings work has been a matter of confusion, even for some Google employees. As we wrote in August 2020, documents from a consumer fraud suit the state of Arizona filed against Google “show that company employees knew and discussed among themselves that the company’s location privacy settings were confusing and potentially misleading.”

Democrats Say iPhone Users Have More Privacy

Because many of the cheaper smartphones use Android, the lawmakers warned of a “digital divide” affecting the privacy of people with low incomes:

No law requires Google to collect and keep records of its customers’ every movement. Apple has shown that it is not necessary for smartphone companies to retain invasive tracking databases of their customers’ locations. Google’s intentional choice to do so is creating a new digital divide, in which privacy and security are made a luxury. Americans who can afford an iPhone have greater privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions of Americans using Android devices.

While Google uses location data to target online ads, the company often turns over the data to law enforcement officials who obtain court orders, the Democrats wrote. “This includes dragnet ‘geofence’ orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location at a given time,” they wrote, adding that “Google received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020.”

iPhones also use location services, though the lawmakers seem to be satisfied with Apple’s privacy promises. Among other things, Apple says that if location services are turned on, geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers are sent “in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple” to augment a “crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations.”

With the Find My feature that can locate lost devices, Apple says it “retains location information and makes it accessible to you for 24 hours, after which it is deleted” and that “device location services information is stored on each individual device and Apple cannot retrieve this information from any specific device.”

Post-Roe State Abortion Laws

Assuming the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, there could be more state laws like the recently enacted Texas Heartbeat Act that bans abortions after it’s possible to detect a “fetal heartbeat.” The law defines that as “cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.” This effectively bans abortions after six weeks, and the state law lets private citizens file lawsuits to obtain injunctions and damages of at least $10,000 per abortion.

These lawsuits could be filed against anyone who “performs or induces an abortion” that violates the Texas Heartbeat Act or anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets” an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Aiding or abetting includes “paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise, if the abortion is performed or induced in violation of this subchapter.” Civil suits can also be filed against anyone who “intends to engage in the conduct” described in the law.

The Texas law doesn’t allow the exact scenario Democrats warned of in their letter, that prosecutors could jail women who obtain abortions. But states would have more leeway to enact stricter anti-abortion laws or bans after lifting Roe v. Wade.

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group, says that “26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion without Roe.” Many of these states have laws that were enacted before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and never removed, laws that were enacted after Roe but currently blocked by court order, or “trigger” bans that would “take effect automatically or by quick state action if Roe no longer applies.”

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.

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