The US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade left privacy advocates and more importantly, US citizens concerned about data from their smartphones which could be traced back to them to prosecute abortions. In July 2022, Google stepped in with a partial solution claiming that it would delete abortion clinic visits from users’ location histories. However, an investigation by The Washington Post suggests that Google isn’t consistent in its promise.
To verify Google’s claims, Washington Post’s Geoffrey A. Fowler ran an experiment visiting a dozen abortion clinics, medical centres and fertility specialists around California using Google Maps for directions while his colleague visits two more in Florida.
Google ended up retaining data in nearly half of the visits, even labelling the institution’s name along with the location history. However, other results were in accordance with Google’s claims. After sitting for 15 minutes in the parking lots of two clinics south of San Francisco, Google deleted both locations from its location history within 24 hours.
Fowler tried different variables, including the duration of the visit, taking photos at the location and even telling Google Maps he was at the location by tapping the “I’m here” button on the app. All things considered, there seems to be no pattern to what data Google might retain or delete. In some cases, Google ended up retaining data but only labelled the name of the neighbourhood or another establishment next door.
Is Google really the one to blame here?
Upon sharing his experience with half a dozen screenshots with Google spokeswoman Genevieve Park, Fowler only received a reiteration of the company’s promises from 2022.
Park’s statement, while clearly stating that Google will delete entries from location history “soon after” a visit to medical facilities like “counseling centres, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centres, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others”, doesn’t specify how Google identifies such locations or how long it takes to remove them from a user’s location history.
Google’s response here seems to place the impetus on the individual user. The Timeline feature, which records where the user has been at any given point in time on any given day, is disabled by default. That said, Google apps, especially on Android, often urge users to enable the feature for a better experience. Disabling the feature can also be quite the task for the uninitiated, as it’s buried beneath a ton of other location and privacy settings.
This goes on to show that one can’t rely on Google to identify a sensitive situation, or in this case, a sensitive location. Besides, location or GPS data isn’t always perfect which means Google will often log nearby places instead of the medical facility the user visited, in which case it will retain data because it couldn’t detect the sensitive location in the first place; inaccurate location data can make all the difference when it comes to deleting sensitive locations from a user’s location history.
Whatever the case might be, Washington Post’s investigation goes on to show that Google can’t be trusted to delete your location data in such cases reliably. Not only is location data often imprecise and shouldn’t be relied on for anything important, but Google’s own policies and tracking systems might sidestep its promises from time to time.
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