July 5, 2022 -- Google announced that it would work to delete location history data for people who visit abortion sites and other medical establishments.
Legal experts have voiced concerns about electronic data since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and reversed its original opinion that women have a constitutional right to abortion. For weeks, Google and other tech companies haven’t answered questions about data storage practices and whether they will comply with potential requests from law enforcement for data around abortion clinics and medical sites, according to CNBC.
“Today, we’re announcing that if our systems identify that someone has visited one of these places, we will delete these entries from Location History soon after they visit,” Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of core systems and experiences for Google, wrote in a statement posted on the company’s website on Friday.
The update will take effect “in the coming weeks,” she wrote. Location History is a Google account setting that is turned off by default, she noted, and those who turn it on can delete parts or all their data “at any time.”
“Some of the places people visit — including medical facilities like counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others — can be particularly personal,” she wrote.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, owns popular devices and data services such as Android, Fitbit, Google Search, and Google Maps. Fitbit users who have chosen to track their menstrual cycles in the app can delete their menstruation logs one at a time, and the company will roll out updates to allow users to delete multiple logs at once, Fitzpatrick said.
“Privacy matters to people — especially around topics such as their health,” she wrote. “Given that these issues apply to healthcare providers, telecommunications companies, banks, tech platforms, and many more, we know privacy protections cannot be solely up to individual companies or states acting individually.”
Even before the Supreme Court decision about Roe v. Wade became official, lawmakers called on tech companies and the Federal Trade Commission to ensure data for those seeking abortion care would be protected if the landmark ruling was overturned, CNBC reported. In late May, 42 Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to urge Google to stop collecting and keeping certain location data that could be used to identity people seeking abortions.
In Friday’s statement, Google didn’t clearly say how it would respond to potential requests from law enforcement, CNBC reported. But the company said it would “continue to oppose demands that are overly broad or otherwise legally objectionable.”
“Google has a long track record of pushing back on overly broad demands from law enforcement, including objecting to some demands entirely,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “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 June, Google supported bipartisan legislation called the NDO Fairness Act, which would increase transparency around government data demands and reduce secrecy around non-disclosure orders that prevent service providers from notifying customers that their electronic communications data has been requested. The U.S. House passed the bill on June 21.
“We’re seeing NDOs issued for an increasing number of court orders, warrants, and subpoenas from U.S. authorities,” Kent Walker, president of global affairs for Google and Alphabet, wrote in a statement posted June 23.
“That means that providers can’t notify users until long after compliance, if ever,” he wrote. “And that people don’t have the opportunity to go to court to contest disclosure orders.”