Location Data Still Putting Abortion Seekers At Risk
Health & Gender Policy Brief #153 | By: Mindy Spatt | January 20, 2023
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After the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs and resultant abortion bans, online access to abortion information became increasingly important, and advocates for choice began expressing concern about the vulnerability of location data. With criminal penalties possible in some states, the data could potentially be used by prosecutors to track visits to abortion clinics or to their websites.
Google vowed to fix the problem (See Technology Policy Brief # 68), but recent tests by advocates and researchers show that location data related to abortion is still being collected and sold to brokers, and a new broker, Fog Reveal, is specifically marketing location and other personal data to law enforcement.
After Google publicly committed to deleting user location history related to abortion clinics and their websites, a research team at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and Carnegie Mellon’s Cy Lab ran tests to find out whether location data from abortion clinic webpages was still being collected and whether it was available through data brokers.
Their findings were extremely disturbing; 99% of the webpages of the abortion clinics surveyed had third-party trackers embedded in their sites. Not just one, an average of nine per clinic.
The researchers then looked at where those trackers were sending the data to, and found that that 97.3% of the web pages reported the data to Alphabet (Google), 38.1% reported to Meta (Facebook), 32.7% to Adobe Systems, and 25.1% to Microsoft. There are few limits on the selling and reselling of tracked information from healthcare websites, which doesn’t enjoy the same privacy protections as other medical information.
The nonprofit advocacy group Accountable Tech also tested Google’s new policies by visiting abortion clinics with Android phones and then checking to see whether data related to those visits was being stored by Google. They found that “Google is still retaining location search queries by default, and location history for users who have it turned on – including for reproductive care facilities…”
The data is easily available to law enforcement thanks to a recent entry into the data broker business, Fog Reveal, a platform that gives law enforcement easy access to location data and a trove of other potentially identifying information.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Virginia-based Fog Data Science sells a service that it bills as allowing police to see where a person was at any point in time over the past several years. This surveillance not only includes possible crime scenes, but also homes, churches, workplaces, health clinics, or anywhere else.”
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The University of Pennsylvania researchers also recommend that healthcare organizations eliminate or take steps to minimize their use of apps and other third party features that require or enable tracking.
EFF found that Fog Data currently has at least 18 contracts with law enforcement agencies and its marketing materials claim it has “billions” of data points about “over 250 million” devices, and that its data can be used to learn where targets work, live, and associate.
All of the advocates are urging passage of privacy legislation including the American Data Protection and Privacy Act as well as further action by Google.
Accountable tech concluded that Google can and should stop collecting and retaining user location data – and enact the changes it previously announced. As long as Google retains the data, it could be forced to hand it over to law enforcement. The FCC could also tighten its rules on cell phone location tracking.
EFF’s research on Fog Reveal caught the attention of Representative Ana Eschoo (D- CA) who has urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company. In a letter to the agency she said:
“…tools like Fog Reveal may present new threats as states across the country pass increasingly draconian bills restricting people’s access to abortion services and targeting people seeking reproductive healthcare.
The use of Fog Reveal is also seemingly incompatible with protections against unlawful search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Consumers do not realize that they are potentially nullifying their Fourth Amendment rights when they download and use free apps on their phones.”
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Post-Roe, Google’s Data Collection and Policies Could Endanger Those Seeking Abortions, November 29, 2022, https://accountabletech.org/research/googles-data-collection-and-policies-could-endanger-those-seeking-abortions/