Protect Pregnant People, Make Google Delete Location Data

Congressional Democrats’ demands to Google are both clear and unprecedented: Delete Americans’ data before police access it.

More and more members of an institution that enabled mass surveillance for decades are now waking up to the threat it poses to the public, particularly pregnant people in a post-Roe America. The more than 40 lawmakers who wrote this week to Google now realize that its sprawling location database could soon become the leading tool used by police to track and prosecute abortion seekers.

For years Google and other tech giants’ data warehouses have felt increasingly creepy, as they use information from our phones, web searches, map requests, and more to build a detailed picture of our every moment. But the public often doesn’t see how law enforcement has come to rely on this same information to keep tabs on citizens.

If the police ordered every American to wear an ankle monitor, it would be struck down as violating the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. But when our phones, computers, and internet-enabled appliances collect that same data, police can just swoop in after the fact and take it.

The double standard makes no sense. It’s the same tracking tech being used for the same purpose, but our civil rights are interpreted in radically different ways for each.

People may have been willing to look the other way when the price of the tracking was targeted ads and corporate profiteering, but the danger will be far worse than that post-Roe. With abortion clinics soon to be shuttered in nearly half the states, pregnant people will seek care either online or out of state, but neither of those is possible without leaving a digital footprint.

And that footprint is left in the care of private companies, and not the government, which is why lawmakers called on Google to stop making it so easy for police to track every movement, and to delete individualized location records.

Police already have the ability to harvest Google data using more invasive tactics than many people could probably imagine. And as I detailed yesterday in a new report, these tactics are already being used to put pregnant people in jail.

Rather than going to Google and other tech companies to request a single users’ data, police can obtain a geofence warrant to force the company to identify every single person in the specified location at a specified time. Now, with abortion poised to be outlawed in dozens of states, local police will use these same tactics to target pregnant people and abortion providers, drawing a geofence around abortion clinics.

“If Congress had the votes, it could ban geofence warrants. But sadly the political will is not there, or at least, not yet.”

This is why lawmakers said it was so important that Google act before its data becomes “a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care.”

If Google wants to record our movements on the aggregate, that’s fine, but when it stores our individual movements and makes it possible for police to find every user who set foot in an abortion clinic, that’s a civil rights catastrophe.

If Congress had the votes, it could ban geofence warrants. But sadly the political will is not there, or at least, not yet.

So the onus is on tech firms like Google to not store their data in ways that make it so easy for police to search. Firms like Apple save location data in ways that prevent it from complying with a geofence warrant, no matter how many times police are asked (although the Cupertino firm has faced a backlash over other surveillance practices).

Alarmingly, some tech firms don’t even have the option to protect their users. Companies like Uber and Lyft are forced to provide customer ride data to municipalities like New York and Los Angeles to help with transportation planning. These mobility data sharing requirements mean that ride share companies will have to collect data in a way that can later be used by police, whether tracking a trip to the airport, or a ride to a health clinic.

But companies aren’t the only ones who can defend against this dystopia—pro-choice states and cities can enact privacy protections too. For cities like New York and Los Angeles it’ll mean ending invasive data demands from mobility companies and other vendors. There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking for aggregated data on overall usage, but demanding companies collect and store minute-by-minute GPS data turns people into sitting ducks for the anti-abortion police.

And pro-choice states need to reevaluate their own surveillance systems. For more than two decades, state and local police have increasingly shared data with federal partners with inter-agency task forces, intelligence fusion centers, and private vendors. This data sharing always raised profound civil rights questions, but as police from other states use these arrangements to surveil out-of-state abortions, they will become truly indefensible.

Additionally, states can begin outlawing the surveillance practices that pose the most potent threats to pregnant people. In New York, legislation is poised to do just that, a bill that would outlaw geofence warrants and police purchases of location data. These warrants were always constitutionally suspect, but the threat is impossible to ignore now.

For pro-choice lawmakers, it’s easy to pay lip service to Roe, but it’s much harder to meaningfully deconstruct the post-9/11 surveillance state. And for corporate leaders who get PR points for promising to help customers with abortion care, it’s a lot harder to protect reproductive rights when it impacts their bottom line.

The coming months will show which leaders are truly willing to make sacrifices to defend reproductive justice; I just hope we see more than empty rhetoric and unkept promises.