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Google Has A Responsibility to Protect Abortion Seekers’ Data, Democrats Say

Digital privacy and location data collection will be the next frontier in reproductive oppression when Roe v. Wade falls.

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In a letter addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai this week, 40 Democratic Senators and Congress members urged the company to protect abortion seekers’ data ahead of the Supreme Court’s expected reversal of Roe v. Wade.

“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,” says the letter, signed by lawmakers including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ayanna Pressley and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

They’re right: Online search history and location data are already being used to target and surveil pregnant people and those seeking abortion care, and this data has at times been used as evidence against them in criminal cases. When the reversal of Roe opens the door for states to reduce pregnant people’s bodies to literal crime scenes, we’ll likely see even more cases like this. After all, as recently as earlier this month, you could purchase the extensive location data of individuals who had just visited abortion clinics for as little as $160 from a private data company.

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Rob Shavell, CEO of the online privacy company DeleteMe, tells Jezebel. “You’ll download this app or that, sign up for ‘X’ or ‘Y,’ and you have no idea who’s now accessing your personal data,” Shavell said, “or how it’s being used.” So long as this data exists online, anyone—right-wing prosecutors, law enforcement, violent anti-abortion trolls—can find a way to access it, and the nightmarish options for what they can do with it will become virtually limitless post-Roe.

Specific to Google, Democrats’ letter notes that while the company collects customer data for “various business purposes” such as targeted ads, this data is also routinely used by law enforcement officials, who “obtain court orders forcing Google to turn over its customers’ location information.” The letter cites data published by Google that found one quarter of the law enforcement orders the company receives each year are for location data, through what are called geo-fence warrants. It received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020 alone.

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“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 letter says. “The only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place.”

The consequences of abortion seekers’ personal data and digital footprints being readily available to prosecutors, abusers, or anyone who may be trying to harm them can be horrifying. Even now, with Roe still in place, National Advocates for Pregnant Women reports that criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes including miscarriage, stillbirth, and self-managed abortion have tripled in recent years—and in numerous cases, individuals’ digital footprints, including searching for abortion pills or texting friends about their pregnancies, have been used as key evidence against them. In states where abortion will be banned after the fall of Roe, all pregnancy losses—and pregnancies, in general—could very likely be investigated and regarded with criminal suspicion, because medication abortion can’t be distinguished from a miscarriage.

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Much like abortion rights post-Roe, individuals’ options for privacy protections could be complicated based on which states they live in, Shavell notes. This is part of why some users turn to DeleteMe. “Based on your state of residency and its laws, there might be more tools to go after people who may be accessing your data. But if you live in a state without those protective laws passed yet, it’s much more challenging for an individual to figure out.”

Image for article titled Google Has A Responsibility to Protect Abortion Seekers’ Data, Democrats Say
Photo: Getty (Getty Images)
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As Jezebel has previously reported, anti-abortion groups are already taking advantage of digital platforms to spy on people, whether through funding and partnering with fertility apps that track people’s periods, or use of the aforementioned mobile geo-fencing technology to bombard patients at or en route to abortion clinics with targeted, anti-abortion propaganda ads and disinformation on Google. Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation who focuses on gender, racial and ethnic justice, and author of “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary,”, has previously confirmed to Jezebel that this practice can be adopted by law enforcement agencies through geo-fence warrants to identify who has visited an abortion clinic.

“[The police] can ask Google for everyone within the radius of a specific location, at a specific time, based on their phones. Then they create a lineup to investigate crimes in a specific location, and generate possible leads from that,” Conti-Cook explained to Jezebel last year. She added that surveillance and digital forensic technologies allow for “large loopholes for law enforcement, for the legal system, to be able to operate within.”

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For example, geo-fencing can be applied to see who’s gone to abortion clinics, as well as substance use disorder treatment centers, which can be particularly dangerous if someone loses their pregnancy and is suspected of drug use. In a number of cases, pregnancy loss as a result of substance use has led to fetal homicide charges and incarceration. Those who are most vulnerable to these outcomes, and the sort of surveillance that Democratic lawmakers describe in their letter to Google, are people of color, and especially Black and Indigenous pregnant people as an extension of the racist War on Drugs and ongoing state policing of Indigenous families.

In April, a Latinx woman in Texas was jailed, charged with homicide for allegedly self-managing an abortion. This incident extends from a long history of (mostly) people of color being criminalized for the outcomes of their pregnancies, as prosecutors weaponize and misuse “feticide” and child endangerment laws. In 2018, Latice Fisher, a Black mother of three in Mississippi, was jailed after experiencing a stillbirth, when prosecutors argued that she’d killed her own baby by citing her previous online searches for abortion pills as her “motive.” In 2015, Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman living in Indiana, was jailed and also charged with feticide in 2015 for allegedly inducing an abortion. Her online purchase of abortion pills and text messages with a friend were similarly used by the prosecution as evidence against her.

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In addition to location data collected by companies like Google, many state-funded, anti-abortion fake clinics, widely called crisis pregnancy centers, are also collecting data through a chat system called Option Line on their websites. The chat system, created by the network Heartbeat International for “abortion-minded” users who must identify themselves and their locations, allows these websites to save “all remarks” sent through the website to be used “for any and all purposes…appropriate to the mission and vision of Option Line,’” per Heartbeat International’s terms of use.

“Big data is revolutionizing all sorts of industries. Why shouldn’t it do the same for a critical ministry like ours?” Heartbeat International has said of its data collection practices. Notably, because CPCs are simply cosplaying as and aren’t real health care providers, they aren’t subject to the medical privacy standards set by HIPAA, and can do what they please with abortion seekers’ information.

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It’s not lost on Shavell that while pregnant people are being surveilled and criminalized for abortions or pregnancy loss, a number of DeleteMe customers are abortion rights activists or people who have spoken up about their abortions, only to be stalked and threatened—along with their children and family members—by anti-abortion activists. “One [DeleteMe customer] recently got a bomb emoji sent to them from an anonymous social media account. These are things that can really cross every line in terms of moving from harassment to, really, criminal kinds of threatening behavior.”

According to Shavell, it’s not just “threats to their business email,” but people showing up at their “physical houses” or family members’ homes, or leaving threats in their “physical mailbox at home” when anti-abortion activists find their addresses online. (Operation Rescue maintains a digital database with photos, videos, and addresses and contact information of abortion providers and their staff.) “All of this has happened to our customers,” Shavell said.

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If Roe v. Wade is reversed this summer, which is all but guaranteed based on the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion, 26 states have pre-Roe abortion bans that could take effect, or trigger bans that will immediately ban abortion the moment Roe falls. Anti-abortion zealots have been plotting for this outcome of the state reducing pregnant people to state-controlled ovens for decades, and they know that laws and Supreme Court rulings are just words if they’re not enforced. They’ll inevitably rely on surveillance and criminalization to enforce abortion bans—and companies like Google have an obligation to not give them the tools to do this.