NGO: Google does not delete location history related to abortion clinics

A Planned Parenthood clinic
The NGO, Accountable Tech, conducted their study in seven US states. (Source: IMAGO / USA TODAY Network)

Google continues to store location history when users in the USA visit abortion clinics – even though the provider promised to delete such data. This can be seen in the current study made by the NGO, Accountable Tech. Google explains that some of the clinics had not been classified as especially “sensitive locations” since they were not only abortion clinics.

The US Supreme Court overturned existing abortion protection in June 2022. Since then, more than 20 states have forbidden abortions or restricted them.

Back then, civil rights activists warned of apps and online services collecting location data that could reveal visits to abortion clinics. Law enforcement agencies can demand that such data is released with a court order.

Google also collects location history from its users through the navigation app, Google Maps, which is frequently requested by US law enforcement agencies. As a result of the decision, the corporation announced in July 2022 that going forward they wanted to automatically delete information regarding visits to medical facilities such as abortion clinics or counselling centers from users’ “Location History”.

Tests in seven states

The NGO, Accountable Tech, is now criticising in a report that this only occurred in half of the cases.

For their study, in each case the organisation used a factory-reset Android smartphone with a new Google account and drove to eight abortion clinics with the help of Google Maps Navigation. In total, this test was conducted in seven states: Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Finally, those who conducted the study verified whether the visit was visible in Location History. According to the report, the journeys could be accessed in four of the eight trials – however, the name of each clinic was hidden. As reported by Accountable Tech, search request data concerning clinic locations could be viewed in all cases in the activists’ Google accounts via “Web & App Activity”.

Accountable Tech has conducted such investigations with similar results over the past 1.5 years. In a test conducted at the beginning of 2023, the respective data was not deleted in 60 percent of the cases, for example.

Google contradicts itself

Nicole Gill, Executive Director of Accountable Tech, comments: “In post-Roe America, prosecutors are looking to Big Tech to help them build cases against abortion seekers by providing the data to track their every movement.” Google has not kept its promise to increase data protection.

The director of product of Google Maps, Marlo McGriff, commented to The Guardian: “We are upholding our promise to delete particularly personal places from Location History if these places are identified by our systems – any claims that we’re not doing so are patently false or misguided.”

In one of the listed examples in the report, Google’s system did not recognise the clinics of the organisation, Planned Parenthood, which is why the data was not deleted, McGriff explains. In another case, a clinic was visited that also provides other treatments – and therefore was not classified as a sensitive location.

Activity to be saved offline

Only in December did Google announce additional steps. Going forward, “Location History” would no longer be stored on the servers of the provider, but rather offline on user devices.

Accountable Tech considers this a “step in the right direction.” However, the organisation also explains that one can not depend on Google implementing its promise during the announced time-frame.

The civil rights organisation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained in December that the changes announced by Google would make it difficult or impossible for law enforcement to receive location history from Google. The NGO is cautiously optimistic that this would be the end of so-called “geo-fence warrants” – if US authorities obtain such a court order, they can demand information from Google regarding all devices that were located in a certain radius at a certain time.

However, other provides and apps also collect location history. For example, US authorities also purchase commercially obtained location data from data brokers. Only in mid-January did the U.S. Federal Trade Commission forbid the data broker, X-Mode, from sharing and selling “sensitive location data”. The authorities warned that such data could be used, for example, to provide information about which medical treatments a person has received.

At the end of last week, the authorities announced that also the data broker, InMarket Media, is also banned from selling such “sensitive location data” going forward.(js)