In a bid to reassure Android phone users that their devices will not be used against them, Google is promising that it will remove location history logs when users come within range of healthcare clinics and a variety of other medical services facilities.
The move comes amidst great uncertainty over the Supreme Court repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision, which frees states to form their own laws regarding abortion. States could go so far as bringing criminal charges against abortion seekers, and the possibility has raised concerns that phone and app use records may be subpoenaed by prosecutors that opt to go to that extreme.
Google promises location history will not log visits made to abortion providers
The news came in an early July company blog post by Google Core Systems & Experiences senior vice president Jen Fitzpatrick. She indicated that the change was scheduled to roll out across Google’s network and services by August.
The primary concern is that users will be logged when visiting healthcare clinics known to provide abortions, but Google is also automatically wiping logs of location history when a variety of other medical service providers are visited: domestic violence shelters, addiction treatment facilities, fertility clinics and counseling centers among them.
In addition to the new information on healthcare clinics, the Google blog post also addressed concerns about period and pregnancy tracking apps leaking potentially incriminating information. Fitzpatrick said that in the coming weeks, the Google Fit and Fitbit apps would be updated to allow users to wipe multiple logs at once; they presently require the user to manually delete them one by one.
Finally, the blog post addressed how Google handles law enforcement requests of this nature. It reiterated that company policy is to push back against requests considered “overbroad” or lacking a legal basis, but may be compelled to in some cases. If it is required to turn over information, the company says that it informs users of what data is shared (except in situations where it is legally barred from doing so). The company also publishes a general transparency report at regular intervals that documents how many law enforcement requests it receives and that it has complied with.
Visits to healthcare clinics to be protected via log removal, “shortly after” the person leaves
Location history recording is off by default on modern Android devices. Google has not said that it will cease automatically logging visits to healthcare clinics and related facilities, but that such visits would be removed from the logs at some point shortly after the user leaves the area.
Users who have enabled location history can view and delete portions of it on their own. This feature may not be immediately apparent to those who do not use Google Maps, however, as that app handles it. Users need to go into Maps and click on “Account Circle,” then “Your Timeline.” There is a location history option under the settings menu in this area. Users can also remove entire days of movement by going into the “Manage Your Timeline” menu and selecting “Show Calendar.” Individual days can then be viewed and deleted if desired, and “auto-delete” functionality (for periods of 3 days to 36 months) can be set up. This would allow users to manually remove records of trips to healthcare clinics after the fact.
Outside of Google’s commitment to protect trips to healthcare clinics, the major tech companies have thus far been hesitant to commit to positions on how they might handle abortion-related contingencies (other than offering employees paid time to travel for that purpose if necessary).
Apple, functionally the only other option on the market for mobile devices, thus far reiterated that it builds “privacy protections” into its products and suggested that users enable two-factor authentication to ensure that health and location history data cannot be accessed by the company. Microsoft has also not taken a public position on how it might handle requests for related information or location history that passes through its email, search and messaging products. But both companies have a recent history of pushing back against law enforcement requests that have a questionable legal basis, with Apple taking the FBI all the way to the Supreme Court over a request to forcibly unlock a phone.
Google also made a pledge to support the NDO Fairness Act, a bill that passed the House in late June and has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The bill puts considerably stronger restrictions on law enforcement requests for digital information from tech companies. Law enforcement agencies currently have a relatively free hand in issuing indefinite non-disclosure orders when they request information from tech companies, which prevents the companies from notifying the user their data has been seized. The new act would require law enforcement to obtain written court approval and establish a 30-day limit for gag orders with further approval required for a 30-day extension.