Privacy Advocates Fear Google Will Be Used To Prosecute Abortion Seekers

Interesting but scary report from LAist

When police are trying to solve a crime, they often turn to Google for help.

It makes sense since the Silicon Valley giant has grown into a nearly $1.6 trillion company on the strength of its most valuable asset: Data on billions of people.

And often, finding out where someone was at the time of a crime, or what they were Googling before a crime occurs, can be pivotal to investigators.

Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, privacy advocates fear Google will provide users’ data to authorities who may try to target people seeking abortions.

When someone uses a Google service on their phone with location history enabled, Google logs that phone’s position about every two minutes. The company can estimate the location of a person’s device within nine feet, court testimony from the company has shown.

In the first half of last year, law enforcement sent Google more than 50,000 subpoenas, search warrants and other types of legal requests for data Google retains, sometimes drawing from a massive centralized database of users’ location history known as “Sensorvault,” which was first reported by the New York Times in 2019.

“Google is increasingly the cornerstone of American policing,” said Albert Fox Cahn, a lawyer who is also executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an advocacy group.

As authorities investigating crimes have become more tech savvy, they have turned to two particularly controversial types of data requests: geofence warrants and keyword warrants.

Geofence and keyword warrants are digital dragnets

Geofence warrants seek information about every device that has crossed into a defined location in a specific period of time, say a bank at which there was recently a robbery, a home that was recently burned down, or an abortion clinic following the Supreme Court ruling.

Keyword warrants request information on everyone who has Googled specific search terms, a kind of digital dragnet that has long alarmed privacy advocates, and now abortion-rights advocates as well.

“It is so chilling. It is so broad. It is so contrary to our civil rights. And yet, because Google has so much of our data, it’s just a ticking time bomb for pregnant people,” Cahn said of keyword searches.

While it remains unclear whether state authorities will try to prosecute abortion-seekers, and will use digital evidence as part of those potential cases, legal experts say the prospect should be taken seriously.

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