Google said Friday that it would delete its users’ location history whenever they visit an abortion clinic, domestic violence shelter or other similarly-sensitive place, responding publicly for the first time to calls for the data giant to limit the amount of information it collects that could be used by law enforcement for abortion investigations and prosecutions.
“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 also reiterates Google’s position that it pushes back against what is sees as overly broad or illegal government requests for data, but does not specifically say how the company will respond to abortion-related requests. Google already lets its users turn off location-tracking completely.
Google and other Big Tech companies have been under pressure over the last week to make clear how they will respond to such requests. Google already responds to hundreds of search warrants every day in the United States, handing over its customers’ emails, location data and documents stored in the cloud. As law enforcement agencies become more tech-savvy, they’ve increasingly used the vast troves of data collected by Big Tech to bolster investigations and prosecutions.
Privacy advocates have long pointed out that these same tactics could be applied to abortion investigations, a hypothetical situation that has now become reality after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Google has fought the government on other data collection issues before, such as pushing back against the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection programs a decade ago.
Any battle between the tech companies and governments about data collection should be done in public, so that regular people and privacy advocates can have their say too, said Megan Graham, a lawyer at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley who advises public defense lawyers on tech and privacy issues.
“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 the searches but their interests are not necessarily the same as the general public, or people who are concerned about privacy rights.”
Other tech companies are facing the same questions as Google. Facebook leaders have discussed legal strategies to respond to the decision since a draft version leaked in May, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. At Amazon, an employee petition asking the company to take a firmer stance on abortion rights and stop giving money to antiabortion politicians has received more than 1,500 signatures. On Friday, some Amazon employees called in sick to protest the company’s silence on the issue.
Caroline O’Donovan contributed to this report.