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Civil Rights Groups Reinforce Legislators’ Demand for Google to Stop Endangering Abortion Seekers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — June 2, 2022 — Washington, DC

Google’s collection and storage of location data will make the company complicit in the criminalization of people seeking abortions in a post-Roe world. The company must immediately stop unnecessary collection and retention of our location data.

50 rights organizations are calling on Google to stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data, to prevent that information from being used to identify people seeking abortions. This open letter doubles down on a letter sent last week by more than 40 lawmakers making similar demands of Google.

The recent leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion signals that the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion will likely evaporate in the coming months. If the protections provided by Roe v. Wade fall, many states with so-called “trigger bans” will immediately criminalize abortion, and Congress may seek to criminalize abortion in all 50 states.

Without the constitutional protection of bodily autonomy, Google’s data sharing will make the company complicit in the criminalization, prosecution, and jailing of people seeking and providing abortion care. Google collects and stores the precise location data of hundreds of millions of smartphone users, and shares this information with government agencies through geofence warrants. A geofence warrant issued by a state prosecutor, for example, could lead Google to unmask the identity of anyone who visited an abortion clinic over a period of time. This degree of government surveillance is only possible because of Google’s business model, which prioritizes mass data collection over human rights.

In their letter, the groups note that Google is not required to collect and keep records of its customers’ every movement, and add that Apple doesn’t retain the same quantity of customers’ location data.

The groups state that the only way to protect Americans’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is for Google not to keep it in the first place.

Statements from signing organizations:

“Google’s location data collection has always been a problem. Pairing this excessive invasion of peoples’ privacy with the likely future where the laws of our country give the government control over peoples’ bodies will endanger millions. Google must act quickly to change its practices to stop this unnecessary data dragnet before it is complicit in the criminalization of abortions.” Caitlin Seeley George, Campaign Director at Fight for the Future.

“Google’s surveillance capitalism business model – in which they are incentivized to collect as much personal data as possible, in order to sell targeted ads – has long undermined our right to privacy. It’s terrifying to consider how the massive amounts of personal data gathered by Google and other companies can now be weaponized against people seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” said Michael Kleinman, Amnesty International USA’s Director of Technology and Human Rights.

“Google needs to take data minimization seriously,” said Willmary Escoto, U.S. Policy Analyst at Access Now. “To truly protect women while privacy rights are under assault in the United States, companies must stop collecting unnecessary data. Google can’t share our location data with the police if they don’t have it. Women who are Black or brown, disabled, indigenous, or of low income are disproportionately vulnerable. Information about people who obtained abortions, including where they went and their internet searches, is private and should be protected.”

“Google must protect its users from being criminalized for using its services. Saving location data puts people seeking abortions at risk of arrest, incarceration and persecution for meeting their needs and making the hardest of choices. Right now, as our government and public officials fail us, Google can step into the gap and help protect us from this overarching interference with our human rights. We ask Google to protect our privacy. Our bodies are not your marketing tools,” said Alex Andrews, SWOP Behind Bars, Inc.

Letter and full list of signers:

Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer
Google LLC

Dear Mr. Pichai:

We write to urge you to stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data, to prevent that information from being used to identify people who have obtained abortions.

The recent Supreme Court draft opinion shows that the constitutional right to safe, legal abortion — a fundamental right that Americans have known for half a century — is likely to be overturned. If this decision becomes final, many states that have trigger laws will immediately criminalize abortion and Congress may pass a law criminalizing abortion in all 50 states.

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 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.

While Google collects and retains customer location data for various business purposes, including to target online ads, Google is not the only entity to make use of this data. Law enforcement officials routinely obtain court orders forcing Google to turn over its customers’ location information. This includes dragnet “geofence” orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location at a given time. In fact, according to data published by Google, one quarter of the law enforcement orders that your company receives each year are for these dragnet geofence orders; Google received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020.

Google is not required 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.

If abortion is made illegal by the Supreme Court and Congress, it is inevitable that prosecutors will use legal means to hunt down, prosecute and jail people 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.

To that end, we urge you to promptly reform your data collection and retention practices, so that Google no longer collects unnecessary customer location data nor retains 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 people seeking abortions.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media
Academy of Perinatal Harm Reduction
Access Now
Action Center on Race and the Economy
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
Advocating Opportunity
AIDS Alabama
Amnesty International USA
CARES
Center for Digital Democracy
Consumer Action
Defending Rights & Dissent
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Elephant Circle
Fight for the Future
Free Press
GLAAD
Global Voices
Hacking//Hustling
Individual Privacy, RJ Attorney
Indivisible Bainbridge Island
Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
Liberate! Don’t Incarcerate
Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus
Media Alliance
MediaJustice
Movement for Family Power
NARAL Pro-Choice America
National Birth Equity Collaborative
New America’s Open Technology Institute
North Kitsap Indivisible
Oakland Privacy
Pro-Choice Connecticut
Pro-Choice North Carolina
Pro-Choice Ohio
Pro-Choice Oregon
Pro-Choice Washington
Reframe Health and Justice
Reproductive Equity Now
Restore The Fourth
RootsAction Education Fund
S.T.O.P. – The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project
SumOfUs
SWOP Behind Bars, Inc
The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center
Transgender Law Center
WA People’s Privacy Network
Whatcom Peace & Justice Center
Woodhull Freedom Foundation

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