Over 40 members of Congress, led by senator Ron Wyden and representative Anna G. Eshoo, urged Google to limit its location data gathering efforts so as to stop it being used by right-wing prosecutors if the Supreme Court reverses the protections offered by Roe v. Wade, according to a copy of the letter released by Wyden’s office on Tuesday.
Google is of particular importance if those protections are scrapped because the company collects a massive amount of location data through its Android operating system and apps, and makes that information available to law enforcement. If seeking or providing abortion services becomes a crime in large parts of the U.S., for example, investigative agencies would generally be within their right to request access to such data if it was part of a valid law enforcement investigation. Google controversially regularly responds to so-called reverse location data warrants or geofence warrants, and provides information on all of the devices it detected as being in a certain area at a certain time.
“We are concerned that, 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 far-right 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,” the letter reads.
Do you have more information on geofence warrants or location data? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
“While Google deserves credit for being one of the first companies in America to insist on a warrant before disclosing location data to law enforcement, that is not enough. If abortion is made illegal by the far-right Supreme Court and Republican lawmakers, it is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will obtain legal warrants to hunt down, prosecute and jail women 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,” the letter continues.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Google has fulfilled reverse location data warrants for years, and their use has steadily become more popular among law enforcement agencies. In a report published in August, Google said it received 982 such warrants in 2018, 8,396 the following year, and then 11,554 in 2020, TechCrunch reported at the time. The vast majority of those requests came from state and local authorities, and geofence warrants at some points made up one quarter of all demands for data from U.S. agencies, according to the report.
Police officers have used the technique to investigate robberies, arson, and murder. Innocent people have also been swept up in such investigations simply for being in a particular place at a certain time. In 2019, The New York Times reported on the case of Jorge Molina, who was arrested on suspicion of being connected to a murder because of a geofence warrant. After spending a week in jail, he was released when authorities identified another suspect.
Motherboard has reported on multiple companies that sold access to location data related to Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, resulting in multiple companies removing that data from public purchase.