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Google urged to stop location tracking to protect privacy of abortion seekers

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Lawmakers and advocates fear smartphone location data gathered by Google could be "weaponized" by conservative prosecutors out to jail women who get abortions./AFP
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May 25, 2022 - 03:51 AM

SAN FRANCISCO — A group of US Democratic lawmakers urged Google on Tuesday to stop collecting smartphone location data that could be used to identify women who have had abortions.

The move came amid fears that the US Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed nationwide access to abortion.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders along with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among more than 40 lawmakers who signed a letter to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.

“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,” said the letter, which was published online.

“That’s because Google stores historical location information about hundreds of millions of smartphone users, which it routinely shares with government agencies.”

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Polls show that a majority of Americans support some form of access to abortion.

But in recent months, Republican-controlled states have taken steps to restrict abortion rights — with some seeking an outright ban of the procedure without any exceptions — and overturning Roe would grant them greater freedom to enact their policies.

“If this decision becomes final, the consequences will be dire,” the lawmakers said.

“Republicans in Congress are already discussing passing a law criminalizing abortion in all 50 states, putting the government in control of women’s bodies.”

In their letter, the lawmakers urged Google to stop gathering location data from smartphones that could be used by prosecutors keen to identify women who have visited health care facilities that provide abortions.

Google routinely receives court orders compelling it turn over user location information, including “geofence” orders, that demand data about everyone who was near a particular place at a certain time, the letter said.

“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 said.

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

Nonprofit digital rights group Fight For The Future echoed the legislators’ plea in an online petition demanding that Google get rid of its location data stockpile the could be “weaponized against abortion patients and doctors.”

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