Google Will Auto-Delete Your Location Data After Visits to Abortion Clinics

For more information about your reproductive health rights and related federal resources, you can visit the US government’s Reproductive Rights site.

After the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the activation of state laws banning abortion, Google has established a new protocol to protect user privacy: automatically deleting visits to abortion clinics and other sensitive health-related facilities from location histories. It will start taking effect in the coming weeks.

The change only affects those who have signed into a Google Account and turned on Location History, which is off by default. Google’s auto-delete policy, as explained in a company blog post, covers more than just abortion clinics, and includes visits to domestic violence shelters, addiction treatment facilities and cosmetic surgery clinics. While personal location data may someday be protected by future nationwide privacy laws, Google isn’t waiting around for a congressional solution. 

The tech company’s policy change is an attempt to address concerns that state anti-abortion laws will lead to prosecutors and others using personal data like Google searches on abortion as criminal evidence. Privacy experts worry that law enforcement will compel app developers to hand over user data that could suggest an abortion has happened — like, say, from a period-tracking app. Data miners could siphon data to pass on to prosecutors or vigilantes, a worry that prompted some US senators to urge Apple and Google to stop collecting app data that could identify abortion seekers.

While Google doesn’t cite these scenarios as inspiring this new policy, its blog post does point out how people can see what info is collected and shared by apps in the Google Play Store, as well as remind readers that it doesn’t always comply when law enforcement demands user data. Conceivably, automatically deleting location data when people visit abortion clinics makes the issue moot such that Google couldn’t turn it over to law enforcement even if compelled.

Users can manually delete their Location History by following Google’s instructions. Note that turning off Location History does not remove previous activity, which must be manually deleted. Even after turning off Location History, other Google apps and services like Search and Maps may continue to save your location data.

Apple’s Maps app has a different approach to privacy, as the Financial Times’ Patrick McGee pointed out, called ‘Location Fuzzing: 24 hours after a location search, Maps converts it to a less-exact one. Furthermore, Apple doesn’t retain a history of searches or places visited, and data Maps collects while in use is associated with a randomly-generated ID that resets every time you open the app. All personal location data swapped between devices, like Significant Locations, is end-to-end encrypted. 

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