‘A uniquely dangerous tool’: How Google’s data can help states track abortions


Many of the states rushing to ban abortion are also the biggest users of a surveillance tool that authorities could use to track women ending their pregnancies — the location data from people’s phones.

Supporters of abortion rights are expressing growing alarm about the potential uses that police or prosecutors could find for this data after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, including to target abortion providers or the people seeking the procedure.

It wouldn’t be hard to do, because states across the country are already using this kind of data for other investigations. And a POLITICO analysis found that many of the states that have criminalized abortion have relied increasingly on location data in recent years to probe crimes including robbery and sexual assault.

Figures from Google, one of the most prolific collectors of location data, show that the company received 5,764 “geofence” warrants between 2018 and 2020 from police in the 10 states that have banned abortion as of July 5. These warrants demand GPS data showing which mobile devices were present in a specified area during a particular time period, and can help investigate individuals who were present at crime scenes or other locations of interest.

Google doesn’t specify what alleged crimes these warrants concerned, and no known cases have come to light yet of geofence warrants being used to prosecute abortions. But the data shows that the use of these warrants is widespread — and that states have established procedures that they could quickly shift for use in abortion investigations.

Abortion foes have already used this kind of data to target mobile ads at people visiting abortion clinics, prompting Massachusetts’ attorney general to crack down in 2016 on an advertising company that was marketing the information. But last month’s Supreme Court ruling increases the peril from the disclosure of such granular personal data, as more states pass laws allowing prosecutions or lawsuits against people who provide or assist in an abortion or help women cross state lines to obtain one.

“Geofence warrants are going to be a uniquely dangerous tool for those states trying to criminalize abortion,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of the book “The Rise of Big Data Policing” and a law professor at American University. “In many ways, they are searching for secret, hidden, intimate personal information, using clues about location data.”

Location tracking is just one part of a panoply of data-collection practices that are now center stage in the abortion debate, along with people’s online search histories and information from period-tracking apps.

Google pledged July 1 that it would automatically delete locations such as abortion clinics and fertility centers from the data it collects on people’s movements, following pressure from abortion-rights supporters in Congress. But privacy advocates say this policy doesn’t necessarily protect people seeking abortions — and they have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate both Google and Apple for creating an “intense system of surveillance” that threatens the privacy of people providing or seeking abortions.

Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Apple, whose software runs mobile devices such as its iPhone, cannot respond to geofence warrants, a company spokesperson said. That is because Apple doesn’t store location data in a format accessible to the company, the person said.

One state offering ripe opportunities for this data is Texas, which passed a particularly restrictive abortion law last year that allows private citizens to sue anyone who aids and abets an abortion. State authorities there sent 1,825 geofence warrants to Google during the two-year period — the second-highest number of demands from any state. (Resolutely pro-abortion-rights California sent 3,655.) Four states where abortions are banned and two state where abortion bans are held up by legal disputes are among the top 10 states overall in issuing geofence warrants.

POLITICO obtained the data through a Google transparency report published in 2021. The data from 2018-2020 is the most recent available.

Private companies offer training courses on how to use location data in investigations, charging up to $1,000 per officer as well as templates for geofence warrants to make it easier for police to send requests to Google.

“Surveillance is the dominant philosophy for how police enforce laws in 2022,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy advocacy group. “It’s unsurprising that so many anti-choice states have police departments who know how to use these systems.”

Cahn noted that geofence warrants are often just the start of an investigation: Once police get data from Google on what devices were within a specific location, they can then send a follow-up request for more details from those devices, such as Google account information, which can include email content, names and associated phone numbers.

In recent years, states implementing abortion bans have been sending more and more geofence warrants — following the national trend of police surveillance growth. In 2018, Georgia sent only 12 geofence warrants to Google. In 2020, the state’s law enforcement agencies sent 584 requests. In Ohio, the state’s law enforcement agencies sent seven geofence warrants in 2018, a number that spiked to 400 in 2020.

On Monday, Ohio lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban abortion at conception. Georgia also has abortion laws that could come into effect soon.

“The number of geolocation searches and geofence warrants are going to increase exponentially in the coming years,” Ferguson said. “Unless courts push back, or unless Congress steps in, or unless the companies do something technically to create carve-outs, this is going to be the go-to first step of law enforcement to begin its investigations.”

Geofence warrants are a growing tool for police departments across the U.S., not just in states where abortions are banned. In a transparency report from Google, the company highlights how the number of geofence warrants it received jumped five-fold from 2018 to 2019. That includes warrants from every state in the country, as well as federal requests. 

Because many geofence warrants are sealed, it’s mostly unknown what types of investigations they have been used for.

For example, while Google confirmed that California issued 3,655 geofence warrants during the 2018-2020 period, California officials provided details on only 41 of them on their OpenJustice database. The majority were issued for robberies, along with others for investigations into murders, sexual assault and arson.

It’s a practice that has been causing controversy since well before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade late last month.

Civil rights advocates have argued that these warrants violate people’s rights because they demand data on potentially innocent people who happened to be in an area rather than on a specific person believed to be connected to a case. In March, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that geofence warrants are unconstitutional.

The geofence warrants use location data collected by Google through the company’s Location History feature. The feature, which lets Google users see places they have traveled, is also used by the company for targeted ads.

That data can come from people who use Google Maps or from devices using Google’s Android operating system. In court documents, Google said it collects location data on “numerous tens of millions” of devices.

Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about the potential uses of that data for abortion surveillance after POLITICO published an unreleased draft of the Supreme Court decision in early May.

“Prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal will soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider,” Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) wrote in a June 24 letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan, requesting an investigation of Apple’s and Google’s data practices.

“Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through shady data brokers,” they added, alluding to anti-abortion laws in states such as Texas.

The data is easy and inexpensive to obtain: In May, Vice reported that it paid a data-collecting company a little more than $160 for a week’s worth of aggregated information on people visiting 600 Planned Parenthood locations. While the data did not include the people’s identities, the article noted that researchers have found ways to trace supposedly “anonymized” data back to specific individuals.

And Google’s promise to automatically delete abortion clinics from its location data trove doesn’t remove the risk, privacy advocates say.

For one thing, Google doesn’t disclose how it labels locations as an abortion clinic. It also doesn’t explain how it accounts for locations where abortions are performed covertly — sites that the company may not be aware of but local law enforcement would be.

“Google will have no idea where abortion services are going to be provided in states where that’s made illegal,” said Cahn, of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

The company has fought back against these warrants even before the concerns about abortion data escalated. The company implemented a policy in 2018 of objecting to any warrants that were too vague, according to court documents. Google also regularly tells police departments that their requests are too broad, forcing officers to narrow down their search requests.

Google’s figures on geofence warrants indicate only how many the tech giant has received, not how many it complies with. While companies such as Uber, Apple and Snapchat have also received geofence warrant requests, Google receives the bulk of the requests because of its mass collection of location data.

Starting in 2020, Google also implemented policies to curtail how much data it keeps. It set Location History to expire after 18 months, and also has the logs turned off by default for new users.

But the company still collects the data, which keeps the door open for future geofence warrant requests from states with abortion bans.

“The company needs to immediately purge any and all of the data it holds that can be weaponized against women, before it is too late,” Wyden said in an email.

Lawmakers who support abortion rights are demanding that Google do more. In their May letter to Google, lawmakers including Wyden, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on the company to stop all collection and retention of location data, rather than creating these carve-outs.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who also signed the letter, argued that Google hasn’t fully thought out its most recent policy.

“Google’s announcement that they will delete location history for abortion clinic visits is a step in the right direction,” she said in an email, “but some questions still remain about how effectively that policy will be implemented, including how soon the data will be deleted and how Google will handle abortion locations that aren’t explicitly labeled.”