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Why Google and other Big Tech firms are being scrutinized post-Roe

Big Tech is under scrutiny for the possibility that its data could be used to prosecute or sue women who have gotten abortions.

Major companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Google have received a notable focus from lawmakers and privacy advocates for their potential role in gathering information about women who have received abortions. While it has only been weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, privacy advocates have warned that law enforcement or private citizens could use data collected by the firms to target women seeking abortions.

“I think there’s a valid concern that state and local law enforcement could go on ‘fishing’ expeditions and go on widescale subpoenas of online platforms,” Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the think tank Chamber of Progress, told the Washington Examiner.

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While most laws restricting abortion target providers, rather than women getting abortions, some privacy activists fear that legislation could be passed to penalize women for abortions. Texas and Oklahoma have passed laws allowing private citizens to sue abortion providers or people who may have assisted in helping someone get one. While at least one state has attempted to pass legislation that would try to stop women from getting out-of-state abortions, the legislation has not passed yet.

The concerns about Big Tech involve the use of “geofence warrants,” a form of warrant in which law enforcement asks for specific information regarding a user’s data. Google has received thousands of these warrants since 2018, with the majority filed by state jurisdictions in large states like California, Texas, and Florida. While Google’s data do not reveal why the warrants were filed, it is possible that law enforcement may seek abortion-related conduct via an abortion-related warrant if a state passed such a law.

Companies such as Google and Apple could provide such data, but it would depend on the breadth or detail of the subpoena. Kovacevich, a 12-year veteran of Google, said that the company could decline to comply based on the subpoena’s scope. “In general, platforms try to avoid complying with the broad fishing expeditions for data from law enforcement,” Kovacevich said.

Warrants are not the only way law enforcement could get data regarding abortions. Data brokers have previously sold abortion clinic-related data for cheap to clients. At least one firm, SafeGraph, sold a week’s worth of location data involving visits to abortion clinics for only $160, according to VICE. While the company has stated that it does not intend to sell similar data sets in the future, the sale reflects how allegedly accessible those data are. Multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, purchase data sets without seeking proper warranties, based on documents released by the ACLU.

It is also why Democratic lawmakers have pushed for Google and other Big Tech companies to clamp down on abortion-related user data. Four Democratic senators filed a letter on June 24, the same day Roe was overturned, requesting that the Federal Trade Commission investigate Google and Apple for gathering abortion-related data. The chamber has also requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland update the Department of Justice’s privacy policies so that local law enforcement cannot acquire a woman’s personal data under the Constitution.

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Other health experts have expressed concerns about period tracker apps containing information about a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Tech companies have been slow to respond to requests about this data collection practice. While Google has said it will delete location history data for anyone who visits abortion-related centers, most tech companies remain quiet on whether they would oblige warrant requests for personal data.

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