The impending Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade doesn’t just endanger bodily autonomy. It also raises the specter that cruel forms of government surveillance will be used to target pregnant people. Under current data collection policies, Google holds the information necessary to track who visited an abortion clinic on a particular day. In the estimated 22 states where overturning Roe v. Wade will mean the implementation of anti-abortion laws, this means that pregnant people’s cell phones could act as digital ankle monitors. In much of the country, pregnant people could face prosecution for seeking an abortion on the basis of phone location data. Google will be complicit – but it doesn’t need to be.
This week, Defending Rights & Dissent, along with dozens of other civil society groups, sent a letter asking Google to take a stand to protect pregnant people. The civil society letter follows on the heels of a similar letter signed by 42 members of Congress. To protect pregnant people from prosecution under draconian anti-abortion policies, Google needs to stop collecting the data that puts them at risk.
Google routinely hands over user data to law enforcement in response to geofence warrant requests. Geofence warrants are a nefarious – and controversial – way for law enforcement to identify suspects based on phone records. Police can ask Google for information about which phones were in the proximity of where a crime was committed. This type of dragnet surveillance often ensnares people who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2019, a man was arrested just because he happened to be riding his bike past the scene of a burglary. Over the past few years, the number of geofence warrant requests has skyrocketed. In 2020 alone, Google received 11,554 geofence warrant requests.
We already know that geofence warrants are liable to trample over the Fourth Amendment. Earlier this year, a federal court found that Virginia law enforcement had used geofence warrants to conduct unconstitutional searches of people who were not tied to the crime scene by anything but their phone location data. Anti-surveillance advocates have long criticized geofence warrants as impinging upon constitutionally-protected freedoms.
As DRAD has previously explained, geofence data is imprecise. Location data doesn’t tell the full story. Did someone traveling to an abortion clinic actually get an abortion? Maybe. Maybe they received other health care. Or showed up to protest. Figuring out whether someone who visited an abortion clinic received an abortion involves police investigating the outcomes of pregnancies – a clear invasion of bodily autonomy and personal privacy.
Senator Ron Wyden has warned that innocuous activities like researching birth control online, updating a period-tracker app, or visiting a doctor’s office might subject pregnant people to special scrutiny under current policy. Abortion rights activists are already recommending that women in conservative states leave their phones and smartwatches at home when they seek out reproductive health care. Those who bring a phone to abortion clinic visits might find themselves the subject of geofence warrants. Location data in hand, police begin to probe into the personal. It’s not just cruel. It’s dangerous.
Unless it takes a stand to protect user data, Google will be complicit in the prosecutions of pregnant people. In the letter, we’re asking Google to stop collecting unnecessary customer data and avoid retaining non-aggregate location data. It’s not like this step is unprecedented. Apple already does it. Google could easily take steps to protect pregnant people. Requiring a warrant doesn’t go far enough; Google has to stop collecting the data.
In a comment to Wired, Albert Fox Cahn from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project said: “After Roe, things won’t look like 1973. It’ll look like 1984.”
We don’t want to go back to 1973 – or 1984. It’s time for Google to take a stand.