A group of Senate Democrats is pressing Google on its storage of abortion-related location data, suggesting the tech giant may have misled the public and will need to undergo an independent audit.
The concerns came as part of a May 22 letter in which the senators cited two articles claiming that Google recorded and stored its investigators’ travel to abortion businesses.
“We write to express our concern that Google is not upholding its commitment to delete sensitive location data, particularly when it can reveal private health care decisions,” reads the letter from 10 senators. Among them were nine Democrats, including former presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), as well as Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
“This data is extremely personal and includes information about reproductive health care,” they added. “We are also concerned that it can be used to target advertisements for services that may be unnecessary or potentially harmful physically, psychologically, or emotionally.”
The senators also suggested that Google may have engaged in a “deceptive practice,” apparently alluding to potential scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission. “Claiming and publicly announcing that Google will delete sensitive location data, without consistently doing so, could be considered a deceptive practice,” read the letter, which was addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai.
As the letter noted, Google prefaced the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision with an announcement that it would delete from users’ Location History entries noting they visited a variety of facilities, including abortion businesses. Location History is a feature that is off by default but when activated, records Google users’ device location to their devices and Google servers. More specifically, the company says it uses Wi-Fi and other signals, GPS, and “Sensor information” to determine your device’s location.
These types of features and Big Tech more generally have come under greater scrutiny in a post-Dobbs world where abortion access is more sensitive to geography. Both The Washington Post and Accountable Tech published the results of their attempts to test Google’s commitment to deleting geo-location data, noting that the company did in fact record visits to abortion facilities.
Spokeswoman Genevieve Park reportedly told The Washingto Post that it would delete the Location History entries “soon after” a person visits a clinic and other sensitive facilities. The company also updated its original post, noting:
This deletion applies to certain medical facilities, including counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others. If you visit a general purpose medical facility (like a hospital), the visit may persist.
In response to Google’s “soon after” timeframe, the senators asked for more detail. “For how long after a user visits a sensitive location does Google store an entry for the visit? When does Google delete the entry?” asked the senators.
It continued by asking if Google would “commit to consistently deleting sensitive location data that pertains to any type of reproductive care, mental health care, and addiction treatment within 24 hours of a user’s visit, on both the user’s device and Google servers,” adding, “Will you agree to a third-party audit to verify that such a protocol has been successfully implemented?”
The letter came shortly after an anonymous lawsuit was filed, alleging that Google had intercepted a person’s private information when she used the scheduling portion of Planned Parenthood’s website. Prior research has also revealed that abortion facilities have shared information with third parties.
Democrats, meanwhile, have worried about user data being gathered by law enforcement seeking to enforce abortion restrictions. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, signed a law that would prevent law enforcement and California corporations from cooperating with out-of-state entities in relation to lawful abortions in his state.
In its pre-Dobbs announcement, Google signaled that it would resist law enforcement attempts to utilize its data.
“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely,” the company said. “We take into account the privacy and security expectations of people using our products, and we notify people when we comply with government demands, unless we’re prohibited from doing so or lives are at stake — such as in an emergency situation. In fact, we were the first major company to regularly share the number and types of government demands we receive in a Transparency Report. We remain committed to protecting our users against improper government demands for data, and we will continue to oppose demands that are overly broad or otherwise legally objectionable.”