Today, Google has granular location data on where millions of Americans are now, where they were yesterday, where they go every Tuesday at 4 p.m., and where they walk their dogs morning and night. And if the police produce a warrant for that data, Google usually has to give it to them.
Now Senate Democrats are calling on Google to change that — to remove historical information about our physical whereabouts and commit to collecting far less of it in the future — because they fear the information will be used. by prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the people who have the abortions. In a open letter at the tech giant, 40 Democratic senators wrote: “[I]In a world where abortion could be made illegal, Google’s current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cellphone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down. against people seeking reproductive health care.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Abortion remains legal (and constitutionally protected) in the United States today, but a Supreme Court draft opinion of February indicates that the court may consider annulling Roe vs. Wade — the case protecting the right to abortion — in the coming weeks. If that is the case, nearly two dozen states are set to immediately make abortion illegal, raising questions about how the state could use citizens’ digital fingerprints to accuse them of seeking abortion care.
The use of “geofencing warrants” – warrants that require companies to hand over information about every person who has visited a certain location within a certain time frame – has greatly increased during the last years. They were particularly critical to identify and charge the Capitol rioters on January 6, and they have been used in everything from bank robberies to burglaries. But civil libertarians have opposite their magnitude, and a federal district court ruled in March that they are unconstitutional.
It’s easy to see how geofencing warrants could be used to target people who have visited abortion clinics. But they also regularly suspect people who were literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. If Google were to actually stop collecting this information, it would mark a dramatic shift in the way criminal cases are reviewed: a situation that could frustrate police and prosecutors who view warrants as essential to fighting crime, but relieve activists and privacy advocates who prefer their physical movements are not as readily accessible by the government.