Big Tech’s Toxic Business Model Could Land Abortion Seekers in Jail. Here’s How to Stop Them.Nicole Gill, Aditi Ramesh / Jun 13, 2023
Nicole Gill is Executive Director and Aditi Ramesh is a Policy Manager at Accountable Tech.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer created a devastating new reality for millions of Americans. In the last few weeks, a miscarrying woman was told to wait in her car outside a hospital until she was “crashing.” Another woman suffered permanent damage to her reproductive organs after being refused an abortion and going into sepsis. These scenes evoke the dark days prior to the legalization of abortion in America – but a lot has changed in the last 50 years.
For one, prosecutors looking to enforce restrictive abortion laws now have an ally they couldn’t have even imagined decades ago: Big Tech.
Virtually everything we do online is tracked by companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, from what we buy to the news we read. This type of surveillance isn’t just a byproduct of these companies’ products — collecting and monetizing user data is a fundamental part of their business models. Now, it could land abortion-seekers in jail.
Take Google. More than 154 million people use Google Maps every month to help them navigate their lives. We all know how it works: you open the app, type in your destination, and hit “start” to begin your journey. Along the way, Google is tracking and saving your search queries. If you have certain features enabled, the company is also logging your exact route – including how long you spent at stops along the way. Just like that, your trip has become part of Google’s massive stockpile of user data.
Big Tech companies like Google have created multi-billion dollar empires built on a surveillance advertising business model: collect, store, and sell as much user data as possible. And while this practice has always been invasive, it’s taken on an added level of danger for people living in states where abortion is criminalized.
Now imagine you live in Idaho -- where abortions are severely restricted -- and you use the app to search for and travel to an abortion provider out of state. In April, Idaho became the first state in the U.S. to restrict interstate travel for abortion, making the location data Google tracks and stores potential evidence of a state crime. Your personal location data can now be subpoenaed from Google, turned over to law enforcement, and used in criminal prosecution.
If this scenario seems shocking, it may be because Google has explicitly promised the opposite. After Roe was overturned, Google announced that it would delete the location history of users that visited sensitive health locations like abortion providers. It was a timely PR move that generated a lot of positive press for protecting Americans' fundamental rights. It was also untrue.
Recently, our organization, Accountable Tech, used Google Maps to route to a Planned Parenthood clinic near Capitol Hill in Washington DC – simulating the same kind of stop you would take to drive yourself or a loved one to an appointment. We found that Google continued to track and store location history for short trips to abortion clinics. Google also continues to collect and store Google Maps search query data by default – meaning that even if you just search for words like “abortion” or “Planned Parenthood,” the app is designed to save its record of those search terms for 18 months.
These results were repeated in a later investigation by the Washington Post, which found that Google failed to delete location data from certain trips to abortion providers in California and Florida. Despite its repeated claims, Google is continuing to put abortion seekers at risk.
Advocates are fighting back. Last month, we flew a banner over Google’s I/O conference demanding they “Protect Abortion Privacy.” We’ve rallied hundreds of voices to call out Google online, and we’ve worked to raise awareness of Google’s deception and the ongoing risks to abortion seekers in communities across the U.S. But while the company is certainly beginning to take notice, there’s little indication anything will change. Just three business days after the I/0 conference, Google issued a statement “clarifying” its policy – but it included zero acknowledgment of the company’s ongoing failure to safeguard abortion seekers’ data.
It’s clear we can’t trust Big Tech to police itself. Instead of false promises, protecting abortion seekers will require real, fundamental changes to data privacy protections. Thankfully, lawmakers are beginning to take action.
Washington just became the first state to enact a comprehensive health data privacy law, which includes a requirement that tech companies gather express consent before collecting and selling sensitive health information. In California, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan is spearheading an effort to protect users whose data is collected by period tracking and other health apps. At the federal level, Rep. Sara Jacobs introduced legislation that would create a nationwide provision to protect personal reproductive health information. And now, Democrats in the Senate are demanding answers from Google about its failure to stop dangerous data collection practices that put abortion seekers at risk.
These are steps in the right direction, and we urge all policymakers to support them.
After all, the last time abortion was illegal in America we called each other on landlines. If Big Tech companies won’t rein in their dangerous surveillance advertising practices, policymakers must intervene. Americans' health, safety, and basic freedoms depend on it.