After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Google faced heightened scrutiny from lawmakers and activists over storing the location data of people who go to abortion clinics. This prompted the company to announce in July that it would automatically delete location data related to sensitive facilities, like abortion clinics, domestic violence shelters, or rehabilitation centers—with the pretty significant caveat that it would still comply with some requests from law enforcement, which issued over 11,000 orders for user data from the company in 2020 alone.
But according to a Tuesday report in the Guardian, there have been serious issues with how Google’s policy change has been implemented. Over the course of recent months, the advocacy group Accountable Tech launched several investigations into Google and how it logs user activity, which you can view at myactivity.google.com. In August and again in October, Accountable Tech investigators simulated searching for abortion providers; using Google Maps while physically driving to and entering clinics; and scheduling abortions on their Google Calendars.
Extensive digital trails of their journeys remained in their activity logs, weeks later, including the precise routes that investigators took. This, despite Google’s promise to immediately delete this location data. Accountable Tech’s research, shared with the Guardian, suggests that if Google doesn’t precisely detect that a user went inside an abortion clinic, and was just in the area of one, their location data isn’t deleted.
A spokesperson for Google told the Guardian that the company’s promised policy change has taken effect, without confirming exactly when it began. The spokesperson noted that “users can turn Web & App Activity off at any time, delete all or part of their data manually, or choose to automatically delete the data on a rolling basis.” But without thinking to manually make these adjustments, it appears that users who seek abortion care are still vulnerable to highly incriminating data being stored in their activity logs for months.
In response to Jezebel’s request for comment, the company said “protecting users’ privacy is a top priority for Google.”
“We have a long track record of pushing back against overbroad or otherwise inappropriate government demands for user data, including objecting to some demands entirely,” Winnie King, a spokesperson for Google, said in an emailed statement. Responding to this specific investigation, King said that one of Accountable Tech’s investigators’ visit to a Planned Parenthood clinic hadn’t been deleted because Google had only detected that the investigator visited a nearby business; if it had detected the visit to the clinic, this data would have been deleted, she said.
King pointed out that AB 1242, a California law, requires some companies based in the state to confirm that law enforcement requests are unrelated to certain abortion-related crimes, and prohibits companies from producing data in response to certain abortion-related legal requests.
Abortion is currently banned in about a dozen states, and a Politico report from earlier this year showed the majority of location data warrants that Google received from law enforcement in 2020 came from states where abortion is now banned. But even in states where abortion remains legal, abortion and pregnancy loss can still carry significant criminal risk, given how frequently local police departments weaponize “fetal homicide” laws.
Using pregnant peoples’ internet activities against them isn’t hypothetical. We’ve already seen Google search activity and other data collected by the company legally wielded against pregnant people. In 2018, a Black woman in Mississippi named Latice Fisher was jailed and charged with manslaughter for experiencing a stillbirth because she’d recently Google searched for abortion pills. In a similar case in August, a teenage girl in Nebraska was arrested and faced felony charges after Meta shared with police her text conversations talking about self-managing an abortion.
Accountable Tech’s investigation into Google comes as the tech industry is increasingly reckoning with its role in protecting—or failing to protect—pregnant people’s human rights post-Roe. In addition to sharing the Nebraska teen’s data with police, Meta has historically shared abortion seekers’ data with anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. And Google has helped these anti-abortion clinics by directing abortion seekers to their locations and websites, which also collect visitors’ personal data and in some cases, work with state governments.
This story has been updated to include a response from Google.