Micaela Burrow, DCNF
Google said it will automatically erase location data for users who visit abortion providers in a statement Friday amidst concerns law enforcement could use the data to prosecute illegal abortions.
While Google users always have the option to manually erase their location history, Google will now do so automatically “soon after they visit,” Google’s senior vice president of core systems and engagement, Jen Fitzpatrick, wrote in a blog post published July 1. The new rule will apply to abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters and other facilities that are considered sensitive in a bid to protect users’ privacy.
Experts have warned that law enforcement organizations could use Google location data to identify and target women who seek to obtain illegal abortions, according to The Washington Post. Abortion rights activists also raised similar concerns regarding Google search histories.
“We offer a variety of easy-to-use privacy tools and settings that put people in control of their data. This is particularly important to people around health topics, which is why our data policies include a number of restrictions,” wrote Fitzpatrick.
The post did not specify how much time would pass between the visit and data erasure. Google did not immediately respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.
But Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told TheDCNF that such concerns are overblown. “I’m not troubled by [Google’s policy] because I believe in privacy,” he said.
Scheidler noted that pro-life activists also frequent the ground of abortion facilities to pray and offer counseling, and Google’s data erasure policy would protect them too. The policy would also likely not shelter women seeking abortions in states where the practice is illegal, according to Scheidler, because any illegal abortion provider will not have an official data point on Google Maps.
Google received nearly 150,000 requests for disclosure of user information in the first half of 2021, according to data posted on the company’s website. It granted 78% of those requests.
“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely. We take into account the privacy and security expectations of people using our products,” Fitzpatrick wrote.
Law enforcement agencies are already using invasive tools like geofence warrants.
Geofence warrants direct Google to hand over data on every user whose phone was near a specific location — which overzealous prosecutors could use on an abortion clinic or doctor’s office.
— ACLU (@ACLU) June 24, 2022
The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe V. Wade on June 24 triggered abortion restrictions in states across the country, with some states banning the procedure entirely. Currently, however, state bans only apply to the provider and not the individual seeking an abortion, according to Reuters.
“I think [the policy is] more window dressing and virtue signaling than a more practical concern,” said Scheidler. “Corporations want to look like they’re concerned about privacy.”
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