Padilla Calls on Google to Limit Collection and Storage of Location Data as Republicans Seek to Criminalize Abortion￼
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) joined Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) along with 39 other lawmakers to call on Google to stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining location information in order to prevent right-wing prosecutors from using that information to identify people obtaining abortions.
“We believe that abortion is health care. We will fight tooth and nail to ensure that it remains recognized as a fundamental right, and that all people in the United States have control over their own bodies,” the lawmakers wrote. “That said, 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.”
Google has designed its Android operating system to transmit location information back to Google whenever any app on the phone uses location services, unlike iPhones, which collect and retain far less location information. The company also collects location data from users of Google Maps.
As a result, law-enforcement agencies are able to send so-called “geofence warrants” to Google, demanding the company turn over information about all phones that Google knows were near a particular place at a particular time. Far right Republican officials could use geofence warrants to target doctors who provide abortions, or identify women who travel out of state to obtain reproductive health care.
“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 lawmakers continued.
Last week, Padilla joined Senator Warren and several of his Senate colleagues in sending letters to SafeGraph and Placer.ai, blasting them for collecting and selling the cellphone-based location data of people who visit abortion clinics and risking the safety of anyone seeking access to abortion services. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the senators demanded answers about the companies’ data collection practices and called on them to create a complete and permanent ban on these and similar practices.
In the U.S. Senate, the letter is also signed by Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), John Hickenlooper, (D-Colo.), Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley, (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), Edward J. Markey, (D-Mass.), Cory Booker, (D-N.J.), Mazie Hirono, (D-Hawaii), Tina Smith, (D-Minn.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill).
In the U.S. House of Representatives the letter is also signed by Representatives Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), and Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).
Full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Mr. Pichai:
We write to urge you to stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data, to prevent that information from being used by right-wing prosecutors to identify people who have obtained abortions.
The recent Supreme Court draft opinion shows that the constitutional right to safe, legal abortion — a fundamental right that Americans have known for half a century — is likely to be overturned. If this decision becomes final, the consequences will be dire. Many states that have trigger laws will immediately criminalize abortion. Republicans in Congress are already discussing passing a law criminalizing abortion in all 50 states, putting the government in control of women’s bodies.
We believe that abortion is health care. We will fight tooth and nail to ensure that it remains recognized as a fundamental right, and that all people in the United States have control over their own bodies. That said, 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 most detailed information held by Google comes from Android smartphones, which collect and transmit location information to Google, regardless of whether the phone is being used or which app a user has open. And while Google requires Android users to opt-in to Google’s collection and retention of location data, Google has designed its Android operating system so that consumers can only enable third party apps to access location data if they also allow Google to receive their location data too. In contrast, Google is only able to collect location data from users of iPhones when they are using the Google Maps app.
While Google collects and retains customer location data for various business purposes, including to target online ads, Google is not the only entity to make use of this data. Law enforcement officials routinely obtain court orders forcing Google to turn over its customers’ location information. This includes dragnet “geofence” orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location at a given time. In fact, according to data published by Google, one quarter of the law enforcement orders that your company receives each year are for these dragnet geofence orders; Google received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020.
No law requires Google to collect and keep records of its customers’ every movement. Apple has shown that it is not necessary for smartphone companies to retain invasive tracking databases of their customers’ locations. Google’s intentional choice to do so is creating a new digital divide, in which privacy and security are made a luxury. Americans who can afford an iPhone have greater privacy from government surveillance of their movements than the tens of millions Americans using Android devices.
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.
To that end, we urge you to promptly reform your data collection and retention practices, so that Google no longer collects unnecessary customer location data nor retains any non-aggregate location data about individual customers, whether in identifiable or anonymized form. Google cannot allow its online advertising-focused digital infrastructure to be weaponized against women.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.